Tag Archives: media

Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal

This is not simply a film about a well-publicized political prisoner (or cop-killer, depending on your perspective). It’s actually a comprehensive exploration in an array of issues surrounding race, imprisonment, and activism in modern America. Unlike many other documentaries on Mumia Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary focuses the least on the famous murder case (he was accused and convicted of shooting a Philadelphia police officer). Instead, the film introduces a rich background to that violent encounter, by describing the racialized history of Philly. Even W.E.B. DuBois warned in his famous ethnography—the first sociological study in the US—that Philadelphia was hostile, to say the least, about its Black residents (despite being the supposed “City of Brotherly Love”).

The modern city of Philly can be best understood by the segregation experienced post-World War II and the dominating presence of police chief Frank Rizzo (who personally singled out Mumia). Mumia arrives early in the founding of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party, contributing in his young teens (!) to the Panther newspaper, thus beginning his career as a “revolutionary journalist”. And, no story of racism in Philadelphia is complete without including the story of the MOVE organization, which Mumia begins to cover as a reporter. MOVE is a radical Black freedom organization that attracts the ire of Philly’s city fathers and police department. All of this context helps to explain not only Mumia’s influences, but why Philly’s ruling elites were so interested in shutting him down, at all costs.

Other elements intertwine with Mumia’s personal story, particularly the rise of the prison industrial complex (which he will spend much time writing about and fighting as a jailhouse lawyer). The subservience of the press corp to powerful people and institutions is displayed in contrast to Mumia’s willingness to ask challenging, inquisitive questions of all (including President Jimmy Carter, of whom Mumia tells a funny anecdote, saying Carter once personally saved his job). After Mumia’s incarceration, he continues to work as a journalist. Most famously, he partners with NPR (although his program is canceled in the eleventh-hour before airing, thanks to a Republican offensive in the 1990s); other non-incarcerated journalists express amazement at how prolific he is, and with limited resources at his disposal. Mumia has taken the “opportunity” of the sterile, solitary environment offered by prison and works around the clock, reading and writing. Amazingly, he has never used the Internet and can only checkout a small handful of books at any time.

The extraordinary character of his life is testified to not only by the words of numerous interviewees in Long Distance Revolutionary, but also by the caliber of these interviewees. The film interviews a “who’s who” of the radical American Left, including Cornel West, Alice Walker, Michael Parenti, Dick Gregory, M-1 (from dead prez), Peter Coyote, Angela Davis, and Amy Goodman. Even figures that may surprise some appear, like Ruby Dee. These voices humanize Mumia (and consequently, all who have been locked-up in America), showing how he came to his beliefs and made his decisions. Humorously, Mumia states he wants to thank the Philadelphia police officer who (literally) kicked him into the Black Panther Party by beating him and his friends for protesting outside of a George Wallace political rally. He discusses the people he loves and the separation from his family (whom he has not physically touched for three and a half decades). Through it all, he is lively, entertaining, and funny. He sings, tells jokes, and relates funny stories (e.g., when he changed his name to “Mumia”, his mom refused to comply, calling him his given name, Wesley).

One of Long Distance Revolutionary‘s pleasures is its production value; the effects, sound, and color are all compelling. Many people (including some of the prominent people listed above), read Mumia’s words (and a few others), in artistic fashion, dramatically emphasizing the power of his words. Even though the film is clearly partisan and laudatory of Mumia, it starts with clips of anti-Mumia people, often spitting venom, disparaging him. These police and small business owners in Philadelphia (unsurprisingly, all white) seem unable to see Mumia as human and often view any support for him as heresy committed by cruel idiots.

Perhaps the most telling line from the film comes towards the end, from journalist Juan Gonzalez (who Mumia once invited to join a Black journalists organization, even though he is Puerto Rican). The moral commitment, intensity, and breadth of Mumia’s work (decade after decade) is impressive. Gonzalez notes that even though the movements that initially inspired Mumia have quieted and lost much of their steam and few public “revolutionaries” are visible in America, Mumia still refers to himself as a revolutionary journalist. According to Gonzalez, because Mumia has been in prison for so long, the system has “not had the opportunity to calm him down”.

Surplus: Terrorized into Being Consumers

Less a documentary than an art-infused political statement, Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers, is a magnificent work of collage, mash-up, and polemic. The film focuses on numerous events and personalities from the early-2000s, as well as a plethora of disturbing and strange interviews and footage. Central to the film is its critique of consumer capitalism and corporate-led globalization. In part, the film echoes some of the best from the Frankfurt School, the Situationist International, the anti-civilization anarchist milieu, and the culture jamming subculture.

Representative of Surplus‘ critique of capitalism, the audience is treated to primitivist philosopher John Zerzan speaking—of property destruction during protests and over-consumption—to the backdrop of anti-G8 black-bloc demonstrators in Genoa, a big box store worker haplessly trying to corral shopping carts in a parking lot, and George W. Bush trying to cheer-up America following the 9-11 terrorist attacks by encouraging people to buy stuff. The movie takes a turn for the sad and unsettling by interviewing a strung-out looking designer of realistic sex dolls in his factory. He describes the objectified dimensions of the body types in a detached voice, unethusiastically use words that imply sexuality, but only pertain to consumption.

One of the best features of Surplus is its wedding of sound and image. In fact, the soundtrack merges seamlessly into the narrative, even sampling interviewees words to replay later throughout the film. A Cuban woman describes leaving her homeland and discovering all the other foodstuffs available, and practically oozes with enthusiasm. In contrast, the filmmakers melodically and repetitively sample numerous Cubans stating their typical diet: “rice and beans”. Even Castro’s speech is used to great dramatic effect in this way. (The film’s great irony—or sophistication—is that while critiquing capitalism, it does not give authoritarian socialism a free-ride, providing a dour, colorless depiction of freedom and choice under Castro.) Or, an ultra-masculine Microsoft executive (Steve Ballmer) beats his chest and screams “I love this company!” as he bounces around on a stage in front of his employees. Another great sample is the sound of coins dropping and spinning, which is sampled into a song as a Swedish millionaire entrepreneur (Svante Tidholm) describes how his prosperity has hollowed-out his life and how he longs for the cheap life again.

Perhaps the best effect is a segment that mimics a TV infomercial, set to a monologue from culture-jamming magazine Adbusters’ editor Kalle Lasn. The infomercial imagery is a perfect imitation, while Lasn’s words are lipsynced to the images of the then-heads of state of the US, UK, and Italy, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. It is so genius and twisted, that its symbolism is second only to the recurring footage of workers in India who are employed to de-construct huge ships, piece by piece. The significance of this latter imagery—how capitalism will require incredible effort to dismantle and how a post-capitalist society will still “employ” thousands, amongst other meanings—is effective and devastating.

As a thought-provoking piece of anti-consumerist propaganda, Surplus is unequaled. Even with its unconventional presentation and design—different from most other documentaries—there is much to learn here about the radical critique of capitalism and its consequences. Were it more conventional, like The Corporation or numerous other films critical of corporations, it might lose some of its less engaged audience members; instead, Surplus grabs ahold of its audience and won’t let go, succeeding through both force of argument and style.

Topics: media, economy, work, culture

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists

So much of people’s lives nowadays are facilitated through online and telecommunication technologies. Of course, people still live a “real life”, but much is “lived” online. There is overlap between the real and virtual worlds, but We Are Legion shows an interesting example of an online community which decided to enter the real world, together and with a vengeance. Tech-savvy people, hackers, and digital libertarians composed a fascinating, but insular subculture. The film explores how this digital community eventually coalesced under the tongue-in-cheek label “Anonymous”, and then eventually emerged on the streets in protest. The participants of this subculture are often seen as socially awkward—and ample examples are shown in the interviewees in the film—but they have important roles to play as the enforcers of a pure and free Internet.

We Are Legion does perhaps the best job to-date of presenting the early history of hackers and hactivism (hacker+activism), without any of the silly moralizing and distortions that the mainstream media is apt to make. Most “hackers” are not criminals, just people who make some technology work for a purpose that it was not originally intended. Still, more could have been done to explain what hacking is and how (it could be argued) all hacking is political behavior. Something that could helped support this argument would be more about the FLOSS (free libre open source software) movement.

Anonymous had its origins in an online message board called 4chan, where anyone could post whatever they wanted, but everyone was identified with the label “anonymous”. People joked about the absurd possibility that “Anonymous” was actually just one incredibly prolific contributor and not a legion of individuals given the same moniker. Early on, Anonymous supported pranks, but eventually became political, harassing a White supremacist radio DJ and most famously the Church of Scientology. From there, Anonymous morphed into a highly political, attack army, that was unleashed upon numerous targets, especially corporations and governments that tried controlling the Internet. It was fascinating and entertaining to see the evolution of Anonymous from crude pranksters to political revolutionaries.

Anonymous’ support of WikiLeaks and of the Arab Spring the best example of its current ethos. Hactivists kept the Internet running in North Africa and the Middle East, as citizens in Tunisia and Egypt begin rebelling against their dictatorial governments. A great line emerges in the film: when the Egyptian despot turns off its Internet, people respond by saying “fuck you”, “we’ll turn it back on”. The interviewees warn that bad things happen in the “dark” (or in this case, when the Internet is non-functioning and people are cut-off from the outside world), and that its “almost as if the Internet is a living thing that feels pain”.

I thought that LulzSec was treated a bit too harshly by the film. LulzSec was a militant, radical spin-off of Anonymous, who used their advanced expertise to directly take on state agencies and corporations. Yes, there were some excesses (like the public release of Sony user’s credit card information), but they also repeatedly “stuck it to the Man” and the world’s largest villains who are responsible for all sorts of social harms throughout the world. An added benefit of the film is that it makes former HBGary CEO Aaron Barr look like a guarded, double-talking stooge.

While We Are Legion draws connections between WikiLeaks front-man Julian Assange and the hacker community, more could have been done to explain WikiLeaks and the magnitude of its impact, which will likely be greater than most everything that Anonymous has done, in the annals of history. Some of the screen time could have be re-allocated to this story, and away from the Anonymous vs. Scientology story (which is, admittedly fascinating and bizarre, and important for understanding Anonymous’ politicization).

It would be interesting to see further exploration of the (mostly male) interviewees’ masculinist pretensions and sometimes overt homophobia. Clearly, male posturing occurs everywhere men interact with other men, perhaps especially amongst men who are unable to achieve traditionally-male performances. The filmmakers track down some of the most charismatic supporters and “members” of Anonymous, including Commander X and Barrett Brown. These colorful individuals reveal a few of the simple reasons why Anonymous has been so successful with what it does—it is populated by incredibly intelligent, driven, and creative individuals. The film itself is graphically pleasing and the electronic soundtrack is appropriately playful throughout. All in all, We Are Legion is the best film-based introduction of the online world of hackers, and it presents an accurate depiction of the usually undiscussed political dimensions of the hacker community.

Topics: technology, social change, social movements, media