Sanity from Death Row

John Tarleton Feb 22, 2013

Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal

Director: Stephen Vittoria (First Run Features, 2012)

Did Mumia shoot the cop? Or was he framed by a racist criminal justice system?

These questions have swirled around Mumia Abu-Jamal in the three decades since he became the United States’ most famous death row inmate following his arrest and conviction for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. In a new documentary film on Mumia that recently debuted in New York, director Stephen Vittoria (The U.S. vs. John Lennon and One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern) skips over the long-running debate about Mumia’s legal case. Instead, he takes the long view of the life and times of a man who became a Black Panther leader in his teens and later galvanized millions of supporters (and legions of detractors) from around the world with his writings and commentaries from Pennsylvania’s death row.

JOHN TARLETON: Why did you make this film?

STEPHEN VITTORIA: When you wake up in a country that you realize is run by mass murderers, economic rapists and general run-of-the-mill racists and misogynist psychopaths, you start looking for some sanity. And for me the sanity came from a dark, dank hole on death row in the state of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections, and that was Mumia Abu-Jamal. We’ve made the unthinkable normal in this society and I think Mumia reminds us of that all the time.

JT: You chose not to make this movie about the case. You wanted to go somewhere else?

SV: Everything that’s ever been done about Mumia, whether it’s been a film, a video, a book, an article, has always been about the case. So as a filmmaker, I wasn’t interested in mining 25 or 30 years of existing material just to regurgitate it and come up with my own spin on it.

But from an aesthetic standpoint and from a storytelling standpoint there’s a narrative to be told about Mumia’s life as a journalist and a writer that’s an incredible story. You have a young man coming up out of a very, very tough existence, growing up in the projects of Philadelphia and educated to the point where he’s becoming a major reporter at the age of 28 for National Public Radio, for All Things Considered, and that career is snuffed out. And then, lo and behold, he continues the career under draconian and harsh conditions from prison.

JT: What was it like visiting Mumia?

SV: It was pretty intense. They have him caged in a plexiglass kind of a hermetically sealed room and I’m in a hermetically sealed room. There’s sort of an opening on both sides of the plexiglass where our voices could go through.

It was an incredible meeting because in the back of your mind you expect him to be angry and bitter. And he’s just — he’s transcended that place. He puts his visitors at ease and he is very gregarious and very much himself. You get the sense that he also works incredibly hard in prison as a writer. He has a very specific regimen when he writes. He told me there’s certain days he takes off and he’ll exercise or read or do other things. And then there’s days and hours that he absolutely has to write.

It’s very much like a factory existence. I think that’s one of the ways he stays sane; the sanity is in the writing. The same sanity I found in his writing I think he ends up giving to himself with his research and his writing.

Our visits were incredibly long — each time for like six, seven hours. No food, no water, we just rapped. And a lot of times it wasn’t about political things, it was about goofy things and … He’s never been on a computer so he’s very, very interested in what’s available out there and how, what you can find online. Because when he went into prison, in 1981, it was typewriters and long nights in the library.

JT: Does the meaning of Mumia’s life change if he was in fact guilty of the shooting of Officer Faulkner? Does he have to be innocent of the crime to be a prophetic voice?

SV: That’s an excellent question. I don’t think he has to be innocent of a crime. Hell, we’ve had American presidents that are responsible for two or three million deaths. It’s like the old saying, kill one person, call it murder, kill a million, call it foreign policy.

I wholeheartedly believe in Mumia’s innocence not only from my own personal connection to him but just from what I know of an incredibly skewed case. I believe him to be completely innocent. But does the body of his work and the body of his life change if December the 9th, 1981, actually did happen with him as a guilty party? For me, absolutely not. Maybe for other people it would. It’s probably very personal for everybody. But it would not change for me, although I know in my heart and in my mind that he’s innocent.

JT: You had a previous film about George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. Do you see any connection between that work and this one?

SV: I do. George was a revolutionary within the system but a politician nonetheless. He was very, very different from the rest of his brethren in the Senate and he was probably the most antiwar candidate to ever win a major party nomination. I think it scared the shit out of a lot of people that he got that close to the White House.

Mumia is a classic revolutionary outside the system. I think the similarities are that they both intensely wanted to change the system, Mumia from the outside, which is where I think change actually happens from, and McGovern from the inside. There’s some similarities, there’s a whole lot of differences.

JT: What do you think the future holds for Mumia? There have been comments from Mumia’s opponents saying they hoped he would rot in oblivion in the Pennsylvania prisons now that his sentence has been commuted from death to life without parole.

SV: They even went to the extent of saying that they would hope that someone in prison did the job that they were never able to do. That kind of sounds like a threat to me, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears as far as the authorities in Pennsylvania went.

Mumia is very, very well respected in prison by the other prisoners. They realize what he’s done for them as a jailhouse lawyer and helping people fight the system and get retrials and submit briefs and change things.

I don’t know what the future holds for Mumia. He’s 58 right now and the powers that be are hellbent on keeping that man in prison. But there are a lot of people on the outside that continue to fight for Mumia’s freedom, and I think that if they can catch a break and they can catch some mercy they might find some freedom.

I know Mumia will, to his dying breath, continue to fight for others; he will continue to write; he will continue to broadcast from prison until he can’t do it anymore. I hope and pray that he sees the light of day at some point.

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