40 Years a Prisoner, a film by West Oak Lane-raised filmmaker and TV producer Tommy Oliver (A Perfect Guy, OWN’s Black Love), will make its TV debut Dec. 3 on HBO after premiering at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The film follows the fight of Michael Africa Jr., who was born in prison, to free his parents. His mother, Debbie Sims Africa, was pregnant in 1978 when she and his father, Michael Davis Africa Sr., were among the MOVE members arrested and charged in the death of police officer James J. Ramp during a 1978 standoff at the group’s Powelton Village headquarters.
According to HBO, the documentary “features eyewitness accounts and archival footage of the escalating tension that results in the controversial confrontation between police and MOVE members.” Nine members of MOVE were convicted of third-degree murder, conspiracy, and attempted murder of seven firefighters and police, and received 30- to 100-year prison sentences. MOVE members have argued that Ramp was accidentally killed by another officer.
In May 1985, during another confrontation with the group on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, the city dropped a bomb on a MOVE house, resulting in the deaths of 11 people, five of them children, and destroying 61 homes.
Debbie Sims Africa and Michael Sims Africa Sr. were released on parole, several months apart, in 2018 after not seeing each other for nearly 40 years. The couple married in 2019 at the Sword of the Spirit Church in Lansdowne, according to the Philadelphia Tribune, which quoted the groom as saying that, on being released from prison, “one of the things that was on my list long since before prison was to marry Debbie. Prison forced me to wait 40 years longer than I wanted to.”
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 producers.
“I spent three years of my life making a film about the indomitable will of a son to free his parents, who were fighting against police brutality, systemic racism, and wrongful incarceration in the 1970s,” said Oliver in a statement released by HBO. “Three years of work that I would have happily tossed away if our country was in a responsible place where things like police shootings of unarmed Black people weren’t daily occurrences and where phrases like “I can’t breathe” weren’t treated as memes … but that’s not the world we live in and as long as it’s not, it’s the role of the artist to shine as bright of a light as possible on those things.”
Along with his wife, Codie Oliver, Tommy Oliver produces the docu-series Black Love, which will begin its fourth season at 9 p.m. Saturday on OWN. The series features Black couples, some of them celebrities, talking about their lives together.