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Film Review: Long Distance Revolutionary

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Long Distance Revolutionary                                                                                                                                                                                                                               
(DVD, First Run Features)

In late 1996, a year after Live From Death Row appeared in print to wide critical acclaim, Pennsylvania supermax prison SCI Greene forbade its author, radical journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, from conducting press interviews. Widely seen as an attempt to silence Abu-Jamal, a federal district court threw out the ban, saying it unfairly singled out one inmate. SCI Greene complied with the decision by simply prohibiting all inmates from conducting recorded interviews. The ban, which has since expanded to other prisons and states, has become known as the “Mumia rule”.

Chronicling his life before and after a widely condemned murder conviction in 1982, Long Distance Revolutionary situates obstacles like the “Mumia rule” within a long history of racial injustice and silence. Combining archival footage, poetry, and interviews with activists and writers like Angela Davis, David Zirin, and Cornel West, the film documents Abu-Jamal’s effort to explode that silence, especially around issues like black history, police brutality and the prison-industrial complex.

Emerging as a prominent activist and journalist in 1970s Philadelphia, Abu-Jamal’s potent writing always fed into action. In one of the film’s more powerful moments, he describes protesting a campaign rally for segregationist candidate George Wallace in 1968 (at age 14). After being discovered by Wallace supporters, he recalls being beaten by close to a dozen white men, including a policeman who kicked him in the face. “I’ve always said thank you to that cop,” Abu-Jamal says defiantly, quoting a passage from Death Row, “because he kicked me right into the Black Panther Party.”

Long Distance Revolutionary  

His induction into radical activism, however, also led to a difficult, and in many ways impossible life of standing up to violence and power. Held until recently on death row in solitary confinement , forced to see his children only through bulletproof glass, Abu-Jamal has managed to defy his “bright, shiny, highly-mechanized hell” through study, discipline, and remarkable humanity. At one point in the film, when his daughter visits for the first time and is devastated to find out she cannot embrace her father, Abu Jamal is heartbroken, but quickly teases her into a smile.

“Most human beings would shrivel up, become very coarse in their consciousness and very hard in their hearts and very chilly in their souls,” says journalist Tariq Ali in the film, of Abu-Jamal’s incarceration. “It’s had the opposite effect on Mumia.” In his three decades behind bars, Abu-Jamal has authored seven books on everything from black spirituality to the prison system. In spite of unimaginable barriers, Abu-Jamal remains a critical and hopeful voice for the justice and freedom denied him.