Director: Marc Evans (UK/USA – 2007)
A documentary examining the case of imprisoned political activist and former Black Panther member Mumai Abu Jamal, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of a white policeman in 1981. A man born on the day of his arrest investigates the trial and issues of racism within the US prison system.
Marc Evans’ naive yet surprisingly affecting documentary looks at the case of Black Panther spokesman Mumia Abu Jamal, who currently awaits the death penalty for the murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Falkner on December 9 1981.
The film follows 25 year-old Anglo-American journalist, William Francome – born on the same day Abu Jamal was convicted- as he attempts to find out about the man in prison. Francome tours the US judicial system and speaks to Abu Jamal’s relatives, to lawyers, assorted political campaigners and academics to learn about the issues surrounding this convoluted and highly contested case. Much of the footage here is lifted wholesale from John Edington’s 1996 documentary Mumia: A Case for Reasonable Doubt?, although in fairness to Evans and Francome some new evidence is presented.
Abu Jamal was an articulate, left-wing journalist- a bad combination at a time when the city was waging an all out assault on black separatist groups.
On the night in question he had been passing the crime scene in the taxi he drove to earn extra cash. At his subsequent trail, the prosecution maintained that he caught sight of his brother being beaten up by Falkner and shot the policeman dead. The jury believed this story and Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death. Twenty-five years on he is still languishing on Death Row, despite a wealth of evidence suggesting he deserves a fresh trial.
The original trial, it’s been argued, was not fair as it was tainted by police intimidation, a rigged jury to minimise the number of black people on it, and a racist judge who had been overheard on the first day stating his intention to “fry the nigger.” Further evidence emerged suggesting that another man, Kenneth Freeman, had been with Abu-Jamal’s brother at the time of the murder and that it was he who had killed the cop. Freeman’s body was later found handcuffed in a skip. As the film progresses, Francome ascertains that police ineptitude, racial bias, lying witnesses and a massively divided Philadelphia made sure that the case would not go smoothly.
Aside from the distracting graphics and frenetic camera work, Francome presents all this evidence in a clear, convincing manner. Unfortunately, Evans’ documentary suffers from a lack of footage of Abu Jamal- due to a Philadelphia law that prohibits the filming of death row prisoners- or of the people on the opposite side of the argument, namely the police and lawyers who hold that he was correctly found guilty. The result is a film that, for all its strengths, leaves a large part of its subject’s story untold. Nevertheless, interviews with such high-profile supporters as Alice Walker, Angela Davies, Noam Chomsky and provocative rappers Mos Def and Snoop Dogg add considerable weight to this well meaning examination of the American Justice system.
Sight & Sound – Vol 19 Issue 1 – January 2009 – Page 68