With theaters around the country full of names new (up and coming critical darling Jonathan Levine and his film Warm Bodies) and old (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in two brand new action films), it may seem like troubling times for any and everyone looking to head into a theater to view a feature film. However, for those with the right patience or the right theaters in their area, there are some real gems.
One of these gems has arrived in theaters this weekend, and while it’s currently in limited release, First Run Features and their release Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal is one of the early part of this year’s crowning gems.
And it’s also one of the most insightful.
From writer and director Stephen Vittoria, this documentary takes a look at an unlikely, but important, subject. With its central focus on death row, the film follows the life and current times of revolutionary journalist and civil rights voice Mumia Abu-Jamal. A name very few people know much about (I myself even only knew brief things about the journalist through my time in various investigative journalist classes in college), the man has become something of an icon within the civil rights movement, but even more so within the world of journalism.
But who is Mumia? Born and raised in Philadelphia, the man was involved with the black nationalism movement in his youth, and with that getting him in the sights of police in the city, that was only heightened when he started in the realm of political activism and ultimately radio journalism, where he would become the president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. However, when an officer was shot and killed, he was convicted of the murder, and was on Death Row since his conviction in 1982 until he was taken off in 2012 when it was revealed that attorneys in Philadelphia would no longer be seeking the death penalty.
While the film does give us a really moving portrait of a man who has fought day and night to bring a voice to those who may be voiceless due to their faith, their race, their economic state or numerous other reasons, it gives a thrilling look into the world of investigative journalism even more. A seemingly dead art, Mumia has become a revolutionary in the world of writing and journalism, be it his numerous best selling books or the series of essays he has recorded for the likes of NPR and more so the independent group Democracy Now. He’s as influential a voice within the world of journalism as we have today, and while the law has tried to quiet this voice, it has only seemingly gotten stronger the longer he is behind bars.
The film attempts to give a truly loving portrait of this man. While the picture itself does seem to be a tad one sided intellectually, the film does one thing perfectly. Instead of just painting this man as a victim or something of that nature, he is painted as a symbol. Truly becoming the “voice of the voice-less,” Mumia is no longer flesh and blood. Instead, he is now one of the most important names in independent journalism, the only form of journalism that is still able to be considered the “Fourth Estate.”
There is also a large amount of weight given to his life, his career and his current work. With interviewees ranging from Ruby Dee to the one and only Cornel West, the film is a powerful glimpse into the life and work of this man. Yes, the picture is a loving and glowing portrait of a convict, and some of the later moments ring oddly, but with a great number of men and women coming out of the woodwork to praise this man, Vittoria has created a character study in the body of a documentary. And it’s as great a film as we’ve seen now a month into 2013.