'40 Years a Prisoner': TV Review

40 years a prisoner
Courtesy of HBO
An important piece of too-frequently-forgotten history told with spotty focus.
12/8/2020

Tommy Oliver's HBO documentary looks at the conflict between MOVE and the city of Philadelphia through one man's search for justice.

Perhaps it's recency bias or just because nobody has made an oddly hagiographic limited series like Paramount Network's Waco, but the '70s and '80s conflict between MOVE and city officials in Philadelphia feels like it has become an atrocity largely forgotten by the country-at-large.

That a major metropolitan police force imposed an extended siege on a block of a city known for freedom, resorting to gassing and flooding before a shootout ensued — and that the city later dropped literal bombs on an organization's rooftop, killing adults and children and destroying homes — is something that shouldn't be exclusively in the domain of recollection for Philadelphians.

On those grounds, it's easy to recommend Tommy Oliver's new HBO documentary 40 Years a Prisoner, which boasts a powerhouse team of producers — The Roots executive produced and provide an original song, while Common and John Legend are among producers as well — and will absolutely be enlightening for those with no awareness at all of the MOVE conflict. Structurally, the documentary is a mess and I'm not convinced it quite lands on the story it wants to tell, but it's engaging and enraging nonetheless.

There's the side of 40 Years a Prisoner that's the story of Mike Africa Jr., son of two MOVE members imprisoned as part of the MOVE 9. Mike Junior was born after his parents had already been convicted and his only relationship with them has been behind bars. He has made it his life pursuit to get his parents released, or at least that's how it plays out here because no other aspect of his life is explored or even touched upon — which makes it more confusing that Oliver can't quite find a way to illustrate what, if anything, Mike Junior has been doing to secure that release.

And he doesn't need to have done anything! Keeping the faith is heroic, but the story hasn't been structured in that way. So you're going to be continually expecting Mike Junior to find some new piece of evidence or make some passionate plea to a parole board, and maybe that's exactly Oliver's point — that heroism comes in many forms, and the one that documentaries have trained us to expect isn't the only one.

Oliver frames 40 Years a Prisoner as Mike Junior's story and he isn't really a fully developed character, but he's certainly more of a character than the individual members of MOVE, especially his parents.

The documentary, part of a fall of other docs with a cult focus, treats MOVE as a collective, followers of a Black Power-adjacent ideology advocating a return to natural living and animal rights, one espoused from the porch of a townhouse in the Powelton Village section of Philadelphia. Relying heavily on recollections from former MOVE members and neighborhood residents, as well as a surprising number of candid (disgustingly so, in some cases) members of the Philadelphia police department and local officials, Oliver concentrates on MOVE's rise to visibility and the increasingly heightened tensions with the city. Because this happened in plain sight in a media-saturated city, Oliver is able to fill the documentary with reporters from the Daily News and Inquirer and there's more than enough television footage to eliminate any need for reenactments or filler.

It's probably the majority of the film that covers the rise of MOVE, the siege, the shooting of Officer James J. Ramp and the subsequent trial, and Oliver does a very solid job of stoking outrage without letting MOVE completely off the hook for some of the escalation. You'll see Mayor Frank Rizzo and immediately recognize his form of virulent law-and-order authoritarianism, right down to his knee-jerk blaming of the media for every misstep. You'll see police officers who still, to this day, smirk their way through stories of caught-on-film brutality. Some of the imagery and rhetoric exactly mirror what we were seeing at times this summer. Still, you can tell Oliver has concerns about the footage of small children running naked through an urban front yard, about the growing militarism of an ostensibly peaceful organization.

We're supposed to be amused and mostly approving of the former MOVE member who cackles, "We do call cops 'motherfuckers,' not to curse. We don't ever call 'em a pig, because we got respect for the pig, because the pig is life." But we're probably supposed to be wary as well.

With Mike Junior and his parents as focus, Oliver takes his story only as far as the MOVE 9 trial and convictions, and since none of them had any connection to the 1985 MOVE bombing, that piece of the story isn't even mentioned. It's a choice, and I completely understand the logic to it, but maybe I would have been more tolerant if 40 Years a Prisoner hadn't been more effective as a MOVE overview than as a personal story.

You can't say, "We're stopping our narrative here because there's no point in telling a piece of the story that our main characters weren't part of," when, despite the title and structure, it's not like you really learn much of anything about Mike Junior's life or the lives of his parents in their respective facilities. The years of denied parole are presented in a series of documents that lack any real personal connection. And that's without getting to completely random bits of sloppiness, like badly lit talking-head sequences and identifying chyrons that are placed directly over white shirts a strange percentage of the time.

Mike Junior doesn't reveal much, but he still gives audiences enough passion to sell the last act of the documentary. One reflection, as he talks about how his fading hopes for a real-life relationship with his parents have evolved over the decades, is good enough to guarantee tears and the somewhat rushed conclusion will do the same.

Not completely satisfying on its own terms, 40 Years a Prisoner has the potential to be a gateway documentary, to get people curious about the full story of MOVE and to stoke additional curiosity about why this particular story hasn't been given a definitive docuseries, or worshipful scripted miniseries, treatment. I worry about the younger generations who don't know this story, and I endorse anything casting some light into this darkness.

Premieres Tuesday, December 8, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.