Nearly 29 years after Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner was fatally shot at 13th and Locust Streets, echoes of the epic and polarizing case filled city streets Thursday as two movies premiered with emotional and clashing views of death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.
At the Merriam Theater, where local filmmaker Tigre Hill was premiering his film The Barrel of a Gun, the officer's widow, Maureen Faulkner, arrived to a sidewalk filled with hundreds of police officers, their motorcycles lined up along Broad Street. The officers applauded her as she made her way into the theater.
"This movie will put people's minds at rest," she said. "There is no doubt that Mumia Abu-Jamal wanted to murder a police officer that night, and that person was my husband."
Earlier in the day, Abu-Jamal himself surprised and energized some of his most passionate supporters at the National Constitution Center when he called from prison to a panel discussion that followed the screening of the pro-Abu-Jamal Justice on Trial, a film by Johanna Fernandez and Kouross Esmaeli.
"Thank you all," Abu-Jamal said over the speaker phone, his call interrupted several times by a prison recording stating that the call was being monitored. "When I heard about this, I was frankly overjoyed."
Abu-Jamal cited a comment from the trial judge, Albert Sabo, that "justice was an emotional feeling," and said: "I remember being floored by those words." He described himself as being "surrounded by love" and dismissed Hill's film: "As soon as he took the dough, he was bought and paid for."
Sabo died in 2002. Members of his family watched the screening of The Barrel of a Gun. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals scheduled Nov. 9 to hear arguments on whether Abu-Jamal should have a new trial on the death-penalty phase of his case. That would not involve the actual conviction.
The two competing films brought out the raw emotions of the vexing, nearly three-decade-old case, with audiences in both theaters applauding and scoffing at various times.
Outside the Merriam Theater, retired and current officers, some of whom had been working the night of Dec. 9, 1981, greeted one another with hugs. "I think the story's finally going to be told," said Ed Fredericks, who was a pallbearer at Faulkner's funeral. Just two protesters stood across the street.
During the movie, there was laughter and applause when then-Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo appeared, warning Black Panther members coming to Philly that they "better have gas masks." "Fry Mumia," someone called out toward the film's end.
At a nighttime screening of Justice on Trial at the Ritz East, supporters bearing "Free Mumia" and anti-death-penalty shirts were still buzzing about hearing directly from Abu-Jamal and energized by the movie, which laid out the case for a new trial. "I had no idea how mistreated he was," said Acquanetta Davis, 60.
Each movie strove to place the case in a different historic context. The Barrel of a Gun puts Abu-Jamal squarely in the heart of the Black Panther movement, whose rhetoric included violence against police officers, and the radical group MOVE.
Justice on Trial examines the case in the context of police brutality and corruption in Philadelphia, trying to make the case that evidence was tampered with and/or suppressed. The location of the earlier screening at the Constitution Center was of special significance for Abu-Jamal's supporters, who believe his trial and sentencing violated his constitutional rights and represent injustices suffered by many others.
Pam Africa, one of the city's chief organizers of pro-Abu-Jamal activities, who appears in both films, said: "I think a major thing happened on this day when you wind up at the Constitution Center."
Esmaeli acknowledged that he sped up production of his film to screen it the same night as Hill's. "We had to do this to make sure his narrative isn't the only one out there," he said. He said he had set out to make a movie that looked at both sides, but "you either get access to one side or the other."
A group of students from the Philadelphia Boys Latin Charter School attended the screening and had plans to attend Barrel of a Gun in the evening, said teacher Nicholas Paschale. Several students said they were convinced of Abu-Jamal's innocence. "You can't call a man a monster who's able to speak that way," said Daniel Williams, 17, of Southwest Philadelphia. "I think the film was exactly on time. This is exactly what the entire city needs to see."