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Worshipful 'Mumia' documentary lacks objectivity

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By Robert Horton
Herald Movie Critic
The title "Mumia: Long-Distance Revolutionary" suggests that the film's subject may be notable for his ability to practice activism while behind bars, cut off from the rest of the world.
But actually, it refers to the idea of Mumia Abu-Jamal's longevity in practicing said activism. The phrase comes courtesy of that incorrigible pundit Cornel West, one of the many talking heads in this worshipful bio.
If the name does not set off any culture-war bells, Mumia Abu-Jamal is the Philadelphia journalist who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in December 1981. He's been in jail since (his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment last year) and has written many books and articles over the last 30 years.
If you didn't already know that Mumia was a kind of Che Guevara-style culture hero to some sectors of the left, you would have no doubt after watching this movie. "Long-Distance Revolutionary" is unabashed hero worship, an effort to convince the uninitiated.
What it lacks in objectivity it makes up for in archival footage and a big group of talkers, who include Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Peter Coyote and the actor Giancarlo Esposito, who does dramatic readings of some of Mumia Abu-Jamal's writings.
The movie's best section by far is the first hour. The portrait of a racially torn Philadelphia in the 1960s and '70s is detailed, and the rule of Frank Rizzo, police commissioner and then a two-term mayor, pungently illustrated.
All of this builds to a particular point, which is the killing of Philly policeman Daniel Faulkner. Here, director Stephen Vittoria gets sketchy, almost as though he figured the kind of people who will watch this movie are the kind of people who might have a familiarity with the case already.
And at that point, the film becomes a series of tributes to Abu-Jamal's writings and perseverance from jail. But this creates a strange vacuum. If you think he's innocent and was railroaded into a conviction, then, of course, the story becomes one of injustice and incredible fortitude.
If you think he's guilty, that changes the dynamic quite a bit. Since this movie offers no evidence that significantly disproves the verdict, it seems to assume that the viewer is already among the faithful.
Which means this film is really for the already convinced or the easily convinced. Whatever it is, it doesn't quite fit the definition of documentary.
"Mumia: Long-Distance Revolutionary" (2 stars)
An unabashedly worshipful portrait of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and writer, who has been in prison for 30 years for the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia policeman. The movie is at its best when portraying the racially torn Philly of the 1960s and '70s, but it doesn't offer much evidence about Mumia's guilt or innocence, which is key to taking the film at face value.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for violence, language.
Showing: Grand Illusion.
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