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”.