Ever since the night of December 9, 1981, there have been two divergent narratives regarding Mumia Abu-Jamal. One account depicts a former Black Panther who has been sentenced to Death Row for killing a Philadelphia police officer. The other version presents Abu-Jamal as an innocent man wrongfully convicted in a racially charged murder trial.
The second interpretation has mobilized thousands of activists over the past three decades, believers who set up card tables on college campuses, where they argue Abu-Jamal’s innocence, and organize rallies clamoring for his release.
The commutation of Abu-Jamal’s sentence from the death penalty to life in prison in the fall of 2011 has left both narratives open-ended, but neither of those stories was the one that director Stephen Vittoria wanted to tell. Although he is of the opinion that Abu-Jamal was wrongly convicted, for his film Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal, which opens in New York this week,Vittoria focused on how the long-controversial figure has sharpened his senses as a reporter and observer of American culture while—involuntarily—free from the influence of mass media.
“As a filmmaker, to tell a story that hadn’t been told really intrigued me,” Vittoria tells TakePart. “It’s a remarkable story of this journalist under very draconian conditions publishing seven or eight books from Death Row, 3,000 recorded commentaries and essays from solitary confinement [with] no computer, no library. He’s writing from not only his own mind, but just from the drips and drabs of books and articles that people that care send into him.”
That same spirit of community contributed to how Long Distance Revolutionary was constructed. After a 1996 documentary on Abu-Jamal aired on HBO, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections changed its policy to disallow outsiders from recording in state prisons, leaving Vittoria in a situation akin to, in his words, “making Jaws without the shark.”
The filmmaker had been inspired during the mid-1990s by reading Abu-Jamal’s essays on race, politics and life in prison. He began corresponding with the Death Row inmate for a film about the American empire that never came to fruition.
Vittoria knew that the incarcerated writer had moved thousands of people to speak up for his release, and the filmmaker learned that many of the people closest to Abu-Jamal, including Cornel West, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Alice Walker, were eager to tell their friend’s story. They appear as formidable stand-ins on camera to speak for and of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
From Abu-Jamal’s roots as a cultural reformer—which trace back as early as high school—to his continued commentaries on such subjects as the Occupy movement, the film is flooded with testimony to the revolutionary’s persistent desire to give voice to the underrepresented, a drive that Vittoria believes has only intensified with Abu-Jamal’s time behind bars.
“There is another way to look at the world, [it’s] about treating people as equals,” Vittoria says. “Any true revolutionary comes at it from the love of the people, and that’s how Mumia transcends prison. He does it because he truly cares about people, and he’s never let that go. If he can do it, our problems on the outside here are pretty first world problems.”
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