[8 December 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Last night I dreamed that I woke up with straps across my chest,
And something cold and black pullin’ through my lungs.
‘N even Jesus couldn’t save me though I know he did his best.
—Steve Earle, “Ellis Unit One”
“I have been aware of Mumia for as long as I can remember,” says William Francome. “That’s because he was arrested on the night I was born for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer.” That night was 9 December 1981, and Mumia Abu Jamal has been in prison as long as Francome has been alive.
This coincidence of timing serves as the premise for In Prison My Whole Life, which airs tonight on the Sundance Channel. Marc Evans’ documentary focuses on this notion of time, with a ticking digital clock marking the minutes, days, and years that Mumia has spent “waiting to die.” Another kind of time is figured in 26-year-old Francome, as he tries to understand the case against Mumia. Under a soundtrack of hiphop and the Clash, the London-born Francome sets up his own interest in the case: “Thanks to my mum, music, and NPR, Mumia had found his way into my white suburban world. We would listen to his broadcasts on the independent radio program “Democracy Now,” with Amy Goodman. Francome describes Mumia as “the voice of the voiceless in America,” and indeed, he is among the most famous of prisoners in the U.S. system—as well as a left-leaning journalist, Black Panther Party member, and ex-president of the Association of Black Journalists in Philadelphia, working hard over the years to make public his own case and prison conditions more generally, thorough his reports from prison and, more recently, his Myspace page.
As to the case, the film rehearses the basics: Mumia was convicted of murdering Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. As Francome narrates over animated reenactments, the details are imprecise: while driving his cab at 4am, Mumia came upon a disturbing scene on Locust Street, “a violent altercation between a white police officer and a black male.” That the black man turned out to be his brother Billy led directly to the scene’s escalation, as Mumia “ran to his brother’s aid.” Borrowing material from John Edginton’s 1996 documentary, Mumia: A Case for Reasonable Doubt, Evans’ film includes an interview with prosecutor Joseph Magill, who vividly describes the state’s version of the defendant’s actions, namely, he straddled the fallen Faulkner and shot him four times with the .38 that he carried with him in his cab (because he’d been robbed twice before, Francome explains). With text on screen to underline the point, Francome says that Mumia’s “ineffectual defense lawyer” was but one component (along with suspect evidence, witness testimony, and prosecutorial behavior) of “a trial that Amnesty International has said was ‘in violation of the minimum international standards for fair trials.’”
With this background, In Prison works through the contexts and details of Mumia’s experience. Throughout, the man himself remains unseen except in archival photos and footage, as he is subject to Pennsylvania’s restriction on photographing or taping prisoners (Francome calls it “Mumia’s law,” as it was passed with urging by the Fraternal Order of Police in response to efforts to publicize the case, though this term refers as well to another aspect f the trial, “prosecutorial racism in jury selection”). This absence lends the film’s narrative an added poignancy and specific politics, as it also emphasizes a crucial point concerning American prisoners’ invisibility, which in turn allows ongoing and systemic abuses (the film—and Amy Goodman—submit that these conditions generally led to the scandal at Abu Ghraib, observing the seeming coincidence that Spc. Charles Graner, convicted of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, has been employed at the very prison where Mumia is being held, Wayneburg PA’s SCI Greene Prison).
Mumia’s absence on screen also means that his story is pieced together through his radio broadcasts for Pacifica radio as well as interviews with a number of well known supporters, including Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, Snoop (who, with Massive Attack, provides the film’s soundtrack), and Steve Earle (captioned as “singer” and death penalty “abolitionist”). Mos Def tells a story about his own arrest outside the 2006 VMAs, as he attempted to perform “political songs” (banned by MTV producers) following Hurricane Katrina. “The way that the police mobilized on me was reflex,” he recalls. “It wasn’t premeditated, it was just that their response to any sort of dissent, on an almost cellular, subconscious level, is to repress it.” His specific recollection (which is, granted, made in a plush hotel room with a designer water bottle, an eager young interviewer, and camera crew at hand) is reframed by Snoop’s broader observation: “You gonna always be a nigger in their eyes,” he says, adding that no black leader has been allowed to “get to the point of leading” (the film was made before Barack Obama’s election, though his photo appears here during a reference to “the future”).
Smartly, Francome ponders the effects of black celebrities (“Has their success as black artists also helped to reinforce the image of an integrated America in which the battles of racism have been fought and won?”) by way of introducing Mumia’s own reflections on Katrina, sounding over a montage of photos—of bodies, devastation, and famous shot of a woman wrapped in an American flag: “It is amazing the evocative power of one word one name, Katrina,” Mumia says,
In a flash, in an hour, in a day, in a week, we saw with our own eyes the loss, the waste, the death, and perhaps worse, the dismissal of black life by virtually every agency of state power. Of course, the state was deadly by its ignoring of black suffering, the media was deadly by its poisonous attention and its perversion of the truth. If U.S. blacks had any illusions, the dark fetid waters of Katrina washed them away. The waters of Katrina cleared the crust of sleep from our eyes and taught us that if you’re black and poor, you are utterly on your own.
In an effort to comprehend this sense of abandonment, Francome travels to Philadelphia. Here he traces the history of the city’s institutionalized racism—the police as a framework for “order” and the city’s governance under Mayor Frank Rizzo, and then, Wilson Goode, the years of harassment of MOVE members and the famous bombing of the MOVE house on Osage Avenue in 1985, still unresolved, with no officials held responsible for the deaths of 11 people. Francome also stops by Geno’s Steaks, the South Philly cheesesteak vendor that has posted a memorial to Daniel Faulkner and was made famous when it advertised that it would only accept orders made in English.
As In Prison makes these allusions and connections—among injustice and racism, xenophobia and fear, Katrina and Mumia and Robert Meeropol (whose parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed by the U.S. I 1953 for “conspiring to steal the secret of the atomic bomb”)—it makes an argument that ranges from nuanced and heavy-handed. In any form, the argument is important. And, as the documentary insists, time is ticking.