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Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary: Film Review

Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary - P 2013
Lou Jones

The Bottom Line

This hagiographic documentary about the imprisoned writer-activist is far too one-sided to be wholly convincing.

Director-screenwriter

Stephen Vittoria

Stephen Vittoria's documentary examines the case of the imprisoned writer-activist Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Don’t expect a balanced portrait in Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary, Stephen Vittoria’s hagiographic documentary about the imprisoned writer and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal. Presenting the titular subject as a saintly genius to be compared to the likes of Frederick Douglass, the filmmaker is so blatantly one-sided and adoring that even sympathetic viewers are likely to be put off.

Having achieved some renown as both a political activist -- he was a primary voice of the Black Panther Party -- and a journalist/commentator, Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1982 for killing a Philadelphia police officer during a traffic stop. He since has spent 30 years in prison, most of them on death row (his sentence recently was commuted to life imprisonment), during which time he’s written numerous books and delivered thousands of radio commentaries. His case has become a cause celebre, as he’s essentially been declared a political prisoner by many prominent writers and celebrities.

The film basically skirts the issue of Abu-Jamal’s guilt or innocence, barely mentioning the incident that landed him in prison. It instead concentrates on his voluminous writings, with numerous excerpts read by a gallery of unidentified voices. Testimonials to his importance are provided by a who’s who of commentators including Dr. Cornell West, Angela Davis, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Dick Gregory and others, while Abu-Jamal himself is seen in vintage interviews in which his quiet thoughtfulness and charismatic eloquence are well on display.

But while the case is well worth examining, the film’s ranting style and overstuffed repetitiveness quickly prove counterproductive. Abu-Jamal’s detractors are heard from in clips of various incensed politicians, police officials and some ordinary Philadelphians, but their viewpoints are given no weight. Instead, the film makes the familiar argument that the entire American system -- political, judicial, etc. -- is essentially racist.

Those who already are fans of the activist’s writings will find much here to appreciate. But anyone looking for more than mere agitprop will be left sorely disappointed.

Opens: Friday, Feb. 1 (First Run Features)
Director/screenwriter: Stephen Vittoria
Producers: Stephen Vittoria, Katyana Farzanrad, Noelle Hanrahan
Director of photography: Erik Sorenson
Editors: Stephen Vittoria, Erik Sorenson
Production designer: Adam Redner
Composer: Robert Guillory
Not rated, 120 minutes