A new Sundance channel documentary, In Prison My Whole Life, unrevealingly retreads the case against Philadelphia-based Black Panther-cum-revolutionary radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Abu-Jamal was arrested (and later convicted and sentenced to death) on Dec. 9, 1981 for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. That date coincides with British-born filmmaker William Francome's birthday. The two independent acts—Abu-Jamal's imprisonment and Francome's life—is the conceit on which this film is based.
It's a slender reed on which to support so significant an issue in the history of U.S. social justice. Sure enough, the film, which aired last night and will re-air on Dec. 17, fails to support the weight.
Francome, who admits to spending his youth admiring black U.S. culture from abroad and hearing tales from his American mother about her social activism, travels this country to talk with a wide range of people connected to Abu-Jamal's case. In nearly every interview, Francome is wide-eyed and gullible in his agreement with the people who share his belief that Abu-Jamal was framed by a racist, police-state Philadelphia establishment.
All this is old news. And Francome offers little in the way of fresh insight or revelations on a case that has been settled (probably unjustly) in the courts but remains hotly debated among leftist social activists and academics. Hardly anyone else cares. That's the promise offered by this film, to add more light to the shadowy case surrounding Abu-Jamal's death sentence.
But Francome breaks almost no new ground. Instead, he throws the kitchen sink into the case. In his effort to show how corrupt the American system of justice is, or has been in Abu-Jamal's case, he veers wildly and illogically from a discussion about slavery, to life in the black separatist community, to the racism of former Mayor Frank Rizzo, to Paul Robeson's social activism, Noam Chomsky's politics and even John Lennon's death.
Francome scores a rare jailhouse interview with Abu-Jamal. But, alas, we're only given his black-screen description because Pennsylvania prison officials are prevented from allowing inmates' pictures to be broadcast.
Despite the films considerable flaws—gimmicky graphics, languid pacing, sweeping generalizations about racism and minimal representation of opposing views—there are two singularly illuminating moments, which hint at the filmmaker's ultimate goal: encouraging a new generation to pick up Abu-Jamal as a celebrated cause for social activism.
About an hour into the 90-minute film, Francome interviews rapper/actor Mos Def, who talks about his brush with "police repression." That interview is quickly followed by a joint-smoking Snoop Dogg explaining how street gangs came into being as a reaction to the failure of the civil rights activists.
Then, in an abrupt about-face, the narrator talks to former Black Panther Angela Davis about being a political prisoner and how a generation of young people, spurred by artists and academics, rallied to her cause; that quite simply, she says, is what separates the '70s from today. Left-leaning causes and figures were prominent and generated activism and protests back then, while Abu-Jamal's case has largely been ignored.
But the documentary will likely not create a new generation of lefty activists, but, further—and tighter—exploration of that theme may have saved this film from being overlooked.
Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.