The latest documentary about Pennsylvania's most famous inmate is called Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Which is fitting. Because the longer the distance from Philadelphia, the deeper the convicted cop killer's support tends to be.
In England, journalist Tariq Ali suggests Abu-Jamal should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In France, he gets a street, a stamp, the first honorary citizenship of Paris since Pablo Picasso.
Stephen Vittoria's movie, which opened Friday, is a compelling and powerful work, though perhaps not for the reasons the director intended. The movie spends two minutes, tops, on the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner, 25, and whether Abu-Jamal is innocent, which was the subject of a 1998 documentary.
Which is also fitting, because the crime and Abu-Jamal's culpability have become beside the point among his supporters. Instead, we get two hours on Abu-Jamal, the revolutionary and author, in a work The Inquirer's Steven Rea calls "more a deification than a documentary."
Labeled "the voice of America," Abu-Jamal is compared to Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman, Tupac Shakur, Bob Dylan. At a certain point, I lost track.
Impassioned academics, activists, actors, and writers discuss his odyssey with an earnest intensity bordering on a Christopher Guest mockumentary. The movie gives voice to the remnants of the far left, a snapshot of profound faith expressed rarely outside the community.
Challenge these views at your peril. Critics of Abu-Jamal's importance are ridiculed in the film and on the Web. Bad reviews are blasted. Conspiracies multiply. After Newark's only movie theater canceled the movie's opening, supporters argued the decision was made because Shaquille O'Neal, one of the multiplex owners, has a too-cozy relationship with the cops. The movie's website declared, "Newark denied again by wealthy elites."
Long Distance Revolutionary is also a war documentary, the war between Abu-Jamal and the Philadelphia Police Department, especially Frank Rizzo. Abu-Jamal says one of his seminal experiences was being beaten by cops at age 15: "I always said thank you to the cop because he kicked me all the way to the Black Panther Party."
The city comes in for a bruising. "Philadelphia has a long history of very, very deep white supremacy," says the inexhaustibly quotable Cornel West. Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin argues that the city "never embraced the greatest boxer it ever produced, Smokin' Joe Frazier, but instead a fictional white boxer, Rocky Balboa, gets the statue." Which is true, though Frazier is finally getting a tribute.
This is also a love story. These intellectuals and activists need an Abu-Jamal, a good-looking, educated intellectual with shared radical politics - one of them - who becomes an imprisoned vessel, an argument for their views. "He is a very distinctive kind of celebrity," says West, during one of his rhetorical arias. "He's a celebrity that calls into question the superficiality of most celebrities."
The Princeton professor calls Abu-Jamal "a bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas," and compares him with Oprah, possibly a first, theorizing that the convict is John Coltrane while dismissing the media mogul as Kenny G. Really, I could watch West all day.
But Long Distance Revolutionary's strongest unintentional message is how much Abu-Jamal has benefited from prison. "He doesn't do time," says Frances Goldin, his literary agent. "He's using it like no one I have ever met."
This is demonstrably true. Behind walls for three decades and sentenced to life without parole to die there, Abu-Jamal has managed to become far more successful - producing books and radio commentaries, guest-teaching at top universities via pay phone - than he ever was as a free man where, fired from multiple jobs for his attitude and poor work ethic, he drove a cab.
Now, he is an author, an intellectual, a stamp, a street, a cause, a star, especially the farther he gets from his hometown.
Karen Heller: >Inquirer.com
To read critic Steven Rea's review of the movie, go to www.inquirer.com /features/entertainment/
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