From Cell to Screen: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal -- Part I

tells the story of Mumia Abu-Jamal and his case, which remains one of the most controversial and heatedly debated in American legal history.
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Mumia Abu-Jamal

"Wrapped in the sweet, false escape of dreams, I hear the unmistakable sounds of meat being beaten by blackjack, of bootfalls, yells, curses; and it merges into the mind's movie-making machine, evoking distant memories of some of the Philadelphia Police Department's greatest hits -- on me. "Get off that man, you fat, greasy, racist, redneck pig bitch muthafucka!" My tired eyes snap open; the cracks, thuds, "oofs!" come in all too clear. Damn. No dream. Another dawn, another beating on B-Block, another shackled inmate at Pennsylvania's Huntingdon prison pummeled into the concrete by a squadron of guards." - Mumia Abu-Jamal "B-Block Days & Nightmares"


Stephen Vittoria is that rare commodity in Hollywood today: a filmmaker with a conscience. To be more precise, a filmmaker with a strong political conscience. After making two feature films, Black and White (aka Lou, Pat & Joe D., 1987) and Hollywood Boulevard (1996), as well as three feature documentaries: Save Your Life -- The Life and Holistic Times of Dr. Richard Schulze (1998), Keeper of the Flame (2005) and the award-winning art house hit One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern (2005), a portrait of the South Dakota senator who tried to unseat Richard Nixon from the White House in 1972.

For his latest exploration into America's socio-political landscape, Vittoria joins forces with radio producer Noelle Hanrahan to bring Long Distance Revolutionary, the story of Mumia Abu-Jamal, to the screen. Born Wesley Cook in Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal made his name as a tireless writer and journalist during the racially-charged 1970s that often portrayed the City of Brotherly Love as anything but. With his intense coverage of the MOVE organization, a black empowerment group whose ongoing battle with the police and city hall came to a fiery end in 1985, Abu-Jamal become a constant thorn in the side of the city's powerful establishment. Things came to a sudden head for Abu-Jamal himself on the evening of December 9, 1981 when he was accused of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. He received a death sentence the following year, and has been on Pennsylvania's death row until early this year, when his death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in December, 2011.

Abu-Jamal's case remains one of the most controversial and heatedly debated in American legal history, with participants on both sides either protesting his innocence in the murder of Officer Daniel Faulkner or his absolute guilt with equal passion and more often, great vehemence.

Abu-Jamal's exile behind prison bars did anything but silence him, but caused his voice to become more widespread as a result of his incarceration, which is how Noelle Hanrahan originally met the man whom she now considers a close friend. In 1992 while producing Pacifica Radio's award winning national coverage of the first execution in California in 25 years (Robert Alton Harris), Ms. Hanrahan discovered Mumia Abu-Jamal's work. Although a national reporter for NPR prior to incarceration, Abu-Jamal had not recorded for broadcast since his arrest in 1981. In July of 1992 Hanrahan traveled to Pennsylvania's Huntingdon State Prison and death row to record Mumia Abu-Jamal's first recordings in more than a decade. Once again, his voice reached a national audience.

The film features appearances from a disparate group of Mumia supporters, including Dr. Cornel West, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Rubin Hurricane Carter, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee, Dick Gregory, Peter Coyote, Giancarlo Esposito, M-1, and Amy Goodman. Eddie Vedder sings "Society." Long Distance Revolutionary is produced by Katyana Farzanrad, Noelle Hanrahan, and Stephen Vittoria and is written, directed, and edited by Stephen Vittoria.

Stephen Vittoria and Noelle Hanrahan sat down to discuss Long Distance Revolutionary, which is headed for major film festivals this spring.

How was this film brought to life?

Stephen Vittoria: You wake up in the morning and you realize that the insanity of Manifest Destiny is still alive and well, complete with the slaughter and economic rape courtesy of The Empire. So as a storyteller, you look for an antidote and for me that antidote was the literary work of Mumia Abu-Jamal. As a filmmaker , you feel the need to search for some sanity that might counterbalance some of the murder and mayhem. And the irony of it is here's a political prisoner who is writing, creating amazing pieces of political literature and revolutionary work from a dark, dank hole on death row. In the film, the celebrated activist Dick Gregory talks about how years from now, historians are going to talk about how Mumia was, in fact, the voice of America, because up until now, the voice of America has been a fraud, a fraud to its own myths of liberty, of justice and of freedom. For me, Mumia is the great equalizer to the gibberish emanating out of Washington. That was the essence of the film for me. And the more I tunneled into his work, his writing and his life, the more of a joy it was to make this film. In many ways, Mumia's writing and revolutionary thought reminds us of a 20th and 21st century Frederick Douglass.

Stephen Vittoria

Prior to becoming aware of Mumia, was there a person, or group of people, whom you believed to be the "voice of America" who turned out to be false prophets?

SV: You mean besides the pantheon of so-called American heroes? It was always such a negative search, I never found anyone I gravitated toward or turned me on enough. As a teenager and because of the murder spree in Southeast Asia, George McGovern turned me on a lot, which is part of the reason I made a film about him and wanted to challenge the prevailing thought that he was a loser, which he most certainly was not. But McGovern later in my life didn't have the gravitas as a revolutionary thinker and revolutionary person, which is what this corrupt system needs to turn it around, instead of the same milquetoast bullshit we've been getting for years, especially from the alleged liberals of this country. Phil Ochs wrote a song years ago called "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," which sums that all up for me.

Remember what Phil said on his infamous "Gold Suit Tour" in '72: "What the country needs right now is a combination of Elvis Presley and Che Guevara"?

SV: (laughs) And I think Mumia might be just that.

Do you see Mumia's background being a major factor in terms of why he's on death row, as opposed to writing for The New York Times, or serving in the senate? Did the fact that he was born poor and black with his amazing intellect doom him in a sense?

Noelle Hanrahan: What kept Mumia Abu-Jamal from having a wider public stage in contemporary America was . He would not, and could not, stray from the truth. We demonstrate many times in this movie the American media did not want to hear this alternative take on American society. Mumia was doggedly determined to tell his own story. He just told the truth, whether he was interviewing Jimmy Carter, members of congress, or local officials. It cost him a lot in terms of losing jobs before he went to prison and after he went to prison, his material was so good, it was chosen by NPR to be featured regularly as a national commentator. Bob Dole got up on the senate floor and told NPR that if they ever considered doing something like that again, he'd go after their funding.

SV: In fact, in the film, historian Tariq Ali says that "they have moved heaven and earth to silence Mumia in this country." It's one reason he's much more well-known overseas, especially in Europe, than he is here.

NH: Whenever Mumia reaches a mainstream media source in this country, be it Vanity Fair, 20/20, HBO, NPR, even when we reached Pacifica Radio, they lost something like 2/3 of their stations after they broadcast Mumia's commentaries. So Mumia really hits a nerve. He spoke about and exposed, first-hand, the rise of this incarceration nation, this culture of incarcerating more people than any other western nation right now. That one in forty-seven Americans will do time in their lifetime. That there are more black men in prison than there were during slavery. That's what Mumia was saying from death row, for National Public Radio and what the mainstream did not want to hear.

Before he was arrested, Mumia was already being extremely inflammatory from the POV of the establishment, in terms of the material he covered. What were some of the issues he tackled as a member of the media that scared people so much?

NH: Here's a perfect example: Mumia was in the audience at a press conference, and asked Jimmy Carter some very straightforward questions about Three Mile Island and other things. Mumia's news director came up to him and was furious. A few moments later, they're riding down in the elevator with President Carter, who turned to Mumia and said "Young man, you asked some very intelligent and probing questions. Thank you." They got off the elevator, and the news director turned to Mumia and said "The president just saved your job." Another example, Mumia wanted to do a story about gentrification, about areas where black families still couldn't buy homes in an area of Philadelphia. He couldn't get the editor to do the story. He was just pushing the boundaries they didn't want covered.

SV: He also conducted some great interviews with people like Bob Marley, Dr. J., various theater groups and music acts... covered the Phillies winning the World Series in 1980. He did a lot of mainstream things. In '79, the Pope came to Philly, and Mumia along with other staffers at the NPR affiliate did a story on the visit that won them an Armstrong Award from Columbia University as one of the best pieces of the year.

NH: Yeah, they went to a black barbershop in Philadelphia and talked to the people about what the Pope's visit meant to them.

SV: I think his coverage of MOVE were the stories that caused him the most grief with the mainstream media in Philly, who as journalist Linn Washington says in our film "were lapdogs then as they are now."

Much like the Black Panthers, MOVE was portrayed in the mainstream media as a group dim-witted, Cro-Magnon thugs bent on the violent overthrow of white America, when in fact they were high-functioning intellectuals who had some very lofty, and humanistic, goals and ambitions. They just wanted to be left alone.

SV: I think that's the case and I think the Philadelphia media, who were in bed with (former mayor and police commissioner) Frank Rizzo and his administration in '78 and later on with (former mayor) Wilson Goode in '85. And Mumia was a thorn in the establishment's side... they didn't want anyone giving a voice to this so-called radical organization. But who's more radical? A back to nature group of citizens or a city government that decides to bomb and exterminate their own people -- as the Philadelphia Police Department did in 1985 along with the help of the FBI. And Mumia was crucified by the local media for simply covering the other side. To me, that's not inflammatory or radical. That's just good, solid journalism.

Noelle Hanrahan

Things came to a head for Mumia one night in December of 1981. Can we talk about what the record says happened, then what he and his defenders say happened?

NH: I think every murder is really complicated. It's really hard to ever determine what really happened. What we do know happened is that Mumia was shot along with a Philadelphia police officer, who was killed. We know that the police immediately grabbed Mumia and started framing him for the murder. I think it was clear from the record, both the current record and the original investigation, that there are serious questions about how the police handled Mumia, the crime scene and the witnesses. There are many contradictions that still haven't been addressed. Even though it's thirty years later, the courts and the Philadelphia courts and the D.A. have been very quick to stop any efforts for Mumia obtaining new evidence for an appeal. The judge who presided over the original case, Albert Sabo, was overheard by a courtroom clerk saying that he "wanted to help them fry the nigger." So this is the kind of situation Mumia faced. He went to trial within six months. He was sentenced to death over the July fourth weekend. They were holding the jury and told them they needed to come back with a verdict or they'd be sequestered for the entire weekend. So there are many, many questions as to whether he received a fair trial.

Continue to Part II.

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