When Tommy Oliver heads back to Philly from Los Angeles later this month for the Philadelphia Film Festival (Oct. 23-Nov. 2 online and at the Navy Yard drive-in), it will be only the second time he’s been on a plane since the pandemic began.
The West Oak Lane-raised filmmaker (1982, The Perfect Guy) was here last month to screen 40 Years a Prisoner, his documentary about the massive Aug. 8, 1978, police raid on the radical back-to-nature group MOVE’s Powelton Village home, in which Police Officer James J. Ramp was killed, and about that day’s aftermath.
Oliver’s audience: members of MOVE.
“I had been shooting the film for about three years. And I told them that I was going to be objective and look at things on both sides and portray things fairly and honestly,” Oliver said in a phone interview. “But for so long they’d had experiences where they’d been misrepresented or poorly portrayed, and so to an extent, my words seemed to fall on deaf ears.”
Seeing 40 Years a Prisoner seemed to overcome some MOVE members’ skepticism, Oliver said.
Beyond the 1978 police raid, the documentary is also the story of Mike Africa Jr., who was born in prison to Debbie Sims Africa. She, along with his father, Mike Africa Sr., was one of the nine people convicted in Ramp’s death, and their son worked for decades to see them released. (MOVE members have long used the shared surname Africa.)
“It was a portrayal that they had never quite seen, because they knew what happened. They understood the complexities. But they also understood the difference between what happened and how it had been portrayed in the media,” Oliver said. “It was incredibly well-received.”
The 1978 police raid and its aftermath in some ways set the stage for May 13, 1985, bombing of another MOVE home that left 11 people dead, five of them children. Dealing with its complexities — it was, for instance, never determined who fired the bullet that killed Ramp, and the house itself was razed hours afterward — meant trying to reconstruct events.
“I’m a research junkie,” Oliver said. “There were seven books, and probably about 65 or so articles. And then I went to the Temple Urban Archives, where there are 70 boxes of content.”
The work also involved “thousands of pages of court transcripts,” and restoring and transferring archival footage, including some from Karen Pomer, who had made a student film while at Temple. “She shot on something called a Portapak, which were half-inch magnetic tapes. ... They were sitting in a box in a closet. And they hadn’t been seen in 40 years," he said. “And then [former Philadelphia Daily News reporter] Kitty Caparella, she had boxes and boxes of content, articles and photos, and she very graciously gave it to me.”
Caparella is interviewed in the film, as is former Daily News reporter Linn Washington Jr., who’s now a Temple journalism professor, former Inquirer reporter Murray Dubin, and current Inquirer reporter Craig R. McCoy, along with many others. Not everyone who appears agrees on what happened that day, or finds the verdicts and sentences out of line. Among those recounting the events of Aug. 8, 1978, are two former police officers, including Bob Hurst, a former head of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police.
“I wanted to make sure I could tell the story as accurately as possible, which meant having perspectives from different sides,” Oliver said. Still, “there were a lot of people who didn’t want to participate, plenty of cops who declined.”
Along with his wife, Codie, Oliver makes a TV show, OWN’s Black Love, in which Black couples talk about their relationships. A big part of 40 Years a Prisoner involved Mike Africa Jr.'s relationship with his parents, whom for decades he never saw together or outside a prison. The couple, who were released, several months apart, in 2018, married last year in Lansdowne, according to the Philadelphia Tribune.
“Relationships, people, connectivity, is something that I find very important ... whether it’s romantic love or parental love,” Oliver said.
40 Years a Prisoner includes original music by the Roots. John Legend and his Philly-raised Get Lifted partners Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius are among the executive producers.
Oliver said he met Jackson when they both served on the Philadelphia Film Festival jury a couple of years ago. “He and John [Legend] had always wanted to do something on MOVE, and they signed on as soon as there was something to sign on to.”
The Roots, too, were enthusiastic. After he screened the movie for Questlove, “we talked for a couple of hours,” Oliver said. "I was just honored and overjoyed that any of those folks wanted to be part of this.”
40 Years a Prisoner will play at the PFS Drive-In at the Navy Yard at 6:45 p.m. Oct. 26, and stream to ticket-holders beginning Oct. 28. Oliver will introduce the film at the drive-in.
The drive-in portion is part of the PFS on Us program, so tickets are free, but must be reserved in advance.
Besides 40 Years a Prisoner, there are a number of film festival offerings with local connections. Screenings this year are virtual (streaming) or at the PFS Drive-In at the Navy Yard. Ticket information, along with a festival schedule, may be found at the Philadelphia Film Society’s website, filmaphiladelphia.org:
Philadelphia Film Festival
Oct. 23-Nov. 2
Streaming tickets for individual films are $10 for Philadelphia Film Society members, $15 for nonmembers.
Drive-in tickets for the “marquee” films Ammonite, Minari, and One Night in Miami are $40 a car for members, $50 for nonmembers. Other drive-in shows are free but require advance registration.
Streaming passes, $200. All-access badges: $300 and $600.