I saw my first “Free Mumia” sticker when I was a teenager in New York. I remember it vividly – it was on someone’s bicycle parked outside a cafe in the Lower East Side. A friend who was following his trial nodded approvingly. Seemingly both overnight and yet gradually, these stickers would pop up on phone booths and telephone poles and café windows – I think there are still some to this day. I had read of his imprisonment and knew dimly of the controversy around it, but had no inkling that he was a respected radio journalist prior to his arrest.
Mr. Vittoria’s unabashedly activist documentary on Mr. Abu-Jamal’s rise to revolutionary journalism is chronicled forcefully and passionately. From his start as a teenage(!) writer on the Black Panther Party newspaper and his contributions to NPR’s All Things Considered, to his success as a respected radio journalist, it is clear that he was dedicated to the art and craft of documentation, reflection, political critique, and reportage. Very much a product of the racial tensions in Philadelphia in the 1960’s through the 1980s and profoundly influenced by the focus of the Black Panthers and other organizations and communities, he channeled his talents toward the service of documenting this particular and poignant portion of American history.
The film is strongest at its simplest: Mr. Abu-Jamal’s splendid voice over the airwaves or over the phone from a maximum-security prison; interviews with his political, literary, and artistic supporters; startling archival footage from the Philadelphia establishment; and, portraits of the artist as a young man. I think the point was sufficiently made with these elements. The addition of spoken-word readings of his books, the animation, and the artwork, though stunning and provocative, is superfluous. Mr. Abu-Jamal is simply a thoughtful and articulate chronicler.
It is fitting that this film makes its world premiere in the Bay Area, another site for revolutionary thought and work in the 1960s (I thought very much of Oakland when I watched this film), and far removed from a particular police establishment in the east coast. There was much support for him from the audience, who came from various camps – political activists, journalist, prison reformers, students. There was both tension and exhilaration at the screening – so much so that I did not stay to finish the question-and-answer session afterward. It was too much to bear.