Filmmaker Tigre Hill's latest project infuriates Abu Jamal supporters, whom he sees as blinded by a bandwagon mentality.
Tigre Hill has only released the trailer to his film, The Barrel of a Gun, but already Mumia Inc. has begun mobilizing against him.
At 57th and Christian Streets, over an offering of rice and beans and salad prepared by her grandchildren, Pam Africa labels Hill an attack dog, the second coming of Wilson Goode, and says his film will be a racist "hit piece" against Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In Germany, writer and academic Michael Schiffman spent 5,600 words aimed at debunking the 3 1/2-minute trailer in a piece that circulated widely online. Schiffman wrote that the case made in Hill's film, at least as indicated by the trailer, "will be built on sand."
On death row, meanwhile, former radio newsman Mumia Abu-Jamal, 55, is as close as he's ever been to a final judgment on his original death sentence for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. The U.S. Supreme Court in April rejected a last appeal for a new trial. A petition by the Philadelphia district attorney demanding reinstatement of Abu-Jamal's death penalty, which was thrown out by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, is pending.
But over convenience-store coffee, sitting in the backyard of his childhood home in Wynnefield where he still lives and where his film is being edited in a room upstairs, Hill is taking it all in stride in his trademark Ben Roethlisberger jersey.
He's laid-back, naturally friendly, and comfortable in taking on the sacred cows of black political, cultural and social-justice power structures, and he's knocking down a few assumptions himself as an African American with a love of George W. Bush and a Philly kid who roots for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's a stocky guy who grew up playing ice hockey and admits to a fondness for the Carpenters (but also John Coltrane). At 41, he's still single (but involved with fitness expert Allegra Feamster). His first film, never released due to legal issues, was a drama about castration.
You might say Tigre Hill has made a career - and maybe even a personal life - out of "not what you were expecting."
His last film, The Shame of a City, started as a chronicle of the 2003 Katz-Street mayoral election, but ended up a stinging indictment of a Democratic Party and black political establishment that were depicted as cynically exploiting racial politics to turn the discovery of an FBI bug in Mayor John Street's office into a windfall of support - among voters and out-of-town bigshots - for Street.
His Mumia thesis is provocative: that placed in the context of prior acts by the Black Panthers, the history of political revolutionaries, various influences on Abu-Jamal's thinking, police killings in other cities that eerily presage Faulkner's, statements and actions Jamal had made before that night, the idea that Abu-Jamal may have set out to deliberately kill a police officer becomes chillingly plausible.
The trial included testimony from four witnesses at the scene, 13th and Locust Streets, where Abu-Jamal was found sitting on the curb, his gun nearby and a bullet from Faulkner's gun lodged in Abu-Jamal's chest.
"I have not come out as saying Mumia is guilty, but you can see where it's going," Hill says. "I'm not afraid of these people. There are African Americans who believe what I do, but are hesitant to say. I don't want to make it racial, even though it is racial."
After Shame, which Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey called a "scrappy exposé" and a "civic Rorschach test," Hill turned to what is arguably the über-global story from Philadelphia: Mumia.
Hill said he felt drawn to the story of Mumia - who has become a potent symbol for anti-death-penalty activists - in part because of similar themes from Shame: race, manipulation of public opinion, and a breathtaking bandwagon mentality by big names eager to exploit a case they knew little about.
Hill, a graduate of Archbishop Carroll High School and Temple who says his cinematic idols run more toward Stanley Kubrick and Irving Thalberg than Spike Lee or Michael Moore, says people assumed that as a black man from Philadelphia, he would be pro-Mumia.
It took time to persuade both sides to talk to him, from Pam Africa to Daniel Faulkner's widow, Maureen Faulkner, to prosecutor Joe McGill (Hollywood was willing). But Tigre Hill, pronounced TEE-gray, is nothing if not a highly competent schmoozer - this is a guy who got 30 actors and local celebrities to appear in his low-budget castration fantasy, Casanova's Demise.
The Mumia story appealed to him as a great narrative, he says, not because it placed him in a familiar role as a black man debunking prevailing black and left-wing thinking.
"I really don't see that role," said Hill, the son of a Marine-turned-defense contractor from Pittsburgh (hence, the Steeler obsession) and a teacher mother, whose college texts from the '40s line the walls of his home, which he inherited after her death. "I look for real stories."
It was at the Pen and Pencil Club, a journalist hangout in Philadelphia, that a buddy introduced him to Bill Colarulo, now a police chief inspector, across the bar. Colarulo told a riveting story of seeing Faulkner in the hospital that night. "He'd only been a cop on the beat, a rookie out at night, and a cop was brought in shot in the head. It just traumatized him. He said, 'You could tell he was dead, there's a certain gurgling.' "
Always intrigued by the case, Hill was hooked. He says he understands the impulse to defend Abu-Jamal, to see him as a victim of larger forces, especially viewed through the lens of police brutality. "You see the way his story has been manipulated," he said. "People take him on as a hero like Che Guevara and other freedom fighters."
Hill says his goal was not so much to take the story out of its global gauze wrap and expose it as a straightforward Philadelphia homicide, but to place it in its larger context.
Hill believes Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and MOVE supporter, was influenced by prior violence by those groups against police. The film cites tactics used by the Chicago 7 and Panther activists Bobby Seale and Huey Newton to address police brutality - in part by provoking violent encounters.
"I believe Mumia and his brother [William Cooke] had it out for cops in the area," Hill said. "You're talking about 13th and Locust, a seedy area. [Cooke is] driving down the street in a beat-up car, tag hanging; it's no shock that he gets stopped. He starts a scuffle with the officer. Mumia comes running across the street. Why was he there? That's the million-dollar question."
William Cooke has never spoken publicly about the Faulkner killing. Hill said he had located Cooke in North Philadelphia but decided against pursuing an interview.
Joseph McGill, the trial prosecutor who has been vilified globally, says he welcomes Hill's analysis. McGill never established a motive, but believes the encounter between Faulkner and Mumia was set up as a political or revolutionary act.
"That's why I am very anxious to see this film," said McGill. "I was aware at the time of Jamal's affiliation with MOVE, aware of Bobby Seale Chicago 7 tactics. I was not aware of the really in-depth history regarding all of the movements."
"I have confidence in Tigre's analysis and his really authentic research," he said. "I've often stated that the further you get from Philadelphia, the less clear the entire case becomes."
Hill's critics say the title - from a Mao Tse-Tung quote, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun," that Abu-Jamal cited in a newspaper interview - is misleading. Abu-Jamal has said it was a commentary on police and government action against black and oppressed people, not a personal philosophy.
Schiffman, the German author, argues that Hill uncritically adopts theories of Maureen Faulkner and Inquirer columnist Michael Smerconish in their book, and says the title of the film perpetuates the notion that Jamal used the Mao quote as a statement of his own strategic plan. Schiffman calls that a "deliberate and toxic lie which, it appears now, will be the core thesis of an equally mendacious and toxic film."
Hill enlisted the help of JFK conspiracy debunker Gerald Posner and was funded by Philadelphia GOP bigwig Kevin Kelley and two partners. Among those interviewed are Ed Asner, Mike Farrell, Danny Glover, Pam Africa (after a lot of coaxing, they met at the Sofitel hotel), Gov. Rendell, anti-death penalty Sister Helen Prejean, Smerconish, the people of Saint-Denis, France, who named a street after Mumia, and Maureen Faulkner.
Hill did not speak with Abu-Jamal. He was interviewing Abu-Jamal's lawyer when Abu-Jamal called, and Hill has footage of the attorney, Robert Bryan from San Francisco, apparently being reamed out for suggesting that he get on the phone with Hill.. Also appearing is district attorney candidate Seth Williams, who says he would seek death if justices ordered a new hearing. Pam Africa has called Williams, who is black, and Hill the "Wilson Goode and Leo Brooks" of the Mumia case, referring to the black mayor and his managing director during the Osage Avenue MOVE catastrophe.
Buoyed by the reaction to the trailer, both positive and negative, Hill hopes to ready the film for a Philadelphia premiere on Dec. 9, the 28th anniversary of the killing.
Pro-Mumia activists will go to Washington on Nov. 12 to ask U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, has yet to respond to the petition to reinstate the death sentence. The justices, though, have heard a capital case from Ohio that involves the same legal issue - instructions to the jury about mitigating circumstances - that is a key focus in Abu-Jamal's appeal.