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40 Years a Prisoner 2020 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Director: Tommy Oliver
Writer: Tommy Oliver
Stars: Mike Africa Jr., Delbert Africa, Janine Africa
About 20 minutes into 40 Years a Prisoner, Tommy Oliver’s powerful new documentary about the decades-long struggle to free the incarcerated black radicals known as the Move Nine, the film-maker accompanies the central character in his movie, Mike Africa Jr, back to the place of his birth.
The camera follows Africa as he walks down the eerily abandoned corridor of G Wing in Philadelphia’s House of Corrections, its paint peeling and doors ajar, until he comes to the last cell. He enters the tiny white concrete cell, empty now but for two metal cots, one of which he lies down upon. “The number of times …” he says, staring up at the ceiling without finishing the sentence.
This was the prison cell, and this the cot, in which Africa was born in August 1978. Days earlier, his heavily pregnant mother Debbie Africa and eight other members of the black liberation and nature-loving group Move had been arrested following an epic police siege and shootout at their communal home in West Philadelphia.
Debbie kept the newborn child with her in that cell for several days, hidden under a blanket, before handing him over to the guards. Mother and child were only reunited outside prison walls 40 years later.
The sequence is one of the most poignant moments in the movie, its emotional punch matched only by another scene that bookends the film. In it we hear Mike Africa’s father, who shares his name and who was also among the imprisoned members of the Move Nine, talk about what it means to him to have been released just the day before after four decades of incarceration.
“Of course I wanted to be free, but knowing what it would mean to him,” he says, referring to his son who campaigned his entire adult life for to his parents’ release. “I don’t want his whole life to be just trying to free us. I’m glad that me and his mom are out, not just because we are free but because it freed him.”
That comment captures one of the booming themes of 40 Years a Prisoner – the hurt that America’s unhealed racial wounds and addiction to mass incarceration of black people inflicts not just on those immediately affected but everyone else around them. “That is what the title really means,” Tommy Oliver said in an interview with the Guardian ahead of the film’s premiere on HBO and HBO Max.
“40 Years a Prisoner refers to Mike Jr – the son who spent his entire life trying to get his parents out. That scene encapsulates precisely that.”
There are many other booming themes of the film, which is anchored around the events of 8 August 1978 when the Philadelphia police force carried out a militarized storming of the Move house in which Mike Africa Jr’s pregnant mother and father were cowering. A police officer, James Ramp, was killed in the shootout for which nine Move members – five men and four women – were convicted and sentenced to 30 years to life.
Systemic racism, police brutality, government as vengeance, the rotting sore of lifelong prison sentences – all emerge as visceral lessons from this telling of the 1978 Move siege. It may be history, but history that has never been concluded and that has a burning relevance today.
Oliver finished editing the movie in June, just days after George Floyd was killed under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. The film-maker emerged from his editing suite, bleary-eyed after a year of cutting, and stumbled straight into the Black Lives Matter protests in Hollywood Boulevard.
He grabbed a stills camera and got to work. The set of photographs that resulted, drawing faces out of the massive crowds, will soon be featured at a special exhibition of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.
“The idea that this film is relevant and topical and of the moment, when we are talking about an incident that took place 40-plus years ago, that breaks my heart,” Oliver said. “I would have been perfectly happy if, by the time this film came out, it was nothing more than a relic, an out-of-date curiosity in a country in which this sort of thing no longer happens. I would have been happy with that. So yes, of course I want my film to be seen, but some things are more important than movies.”
When Oliver began filming with Mike Africa Jr almost four years ago, he had no idea that by the end of the collaboration Debbie and Mike Africa Sr would be released on probation, to be followed by all of the remaining Move survivors. “I most certainly got lucky, that it happened when it did – from a storytelling perspective,” he said.
He first met Mike Africa after he had begun researching the events of August 1978, the siege that ranks as one of the most dramatic and violent clashes of the black liberation struggle involving Move and the Black Panthers in the late 1960s and 1970s. The two men discovered that they had a lot in common, and immediately forged a bond.
They are similar in age: Tommy 36, Mike 42. They both came from poor backgrounds in Philadelphia, Tommy in the projects, Mike passing through a series of Move households in the custodial absence of his parents. They both had the experience of growing up black and largely parentless – Tommy’s father was distant and his mother addicted to crack cocaine (autobiographical elements of which feature in his debut drama film, 1982).
As the friendship deepened, so did Oliver’s investigation into the 1978 police siege. He embarked, along with his archival producer Keith Gionet, on a herculean research project in which they combed through 72 boxes of content, digitized more than 10,000 pages of court transcripts and went through hundreds of hours of original footage and newsreel including 31 tapes shot at the scene of the siege by a student at Temple University which they discovered gathering dust in a closet 40 years later.
Oliver uses the rich archival material to tell the story – how the city of Philadelphia, led by its then mayor and former police commissioner Frank Rizzo, tried to starve the black liberation group out of its home; how when that failed more than 600 cops equipped with automatic rifles, armored vehicles and bulldozers were sent in to evict the members; how 250,000 gallons of water and teargas were pumped into the basement of the Move house on to men, women and children; and how bullets started to fly culminating in the death of police officer Ramp.
Just as the shooting begins, Oliver cuts away from the 1978 footage and switches the film to Mike Africa Jr talking about his long, arduous fight for his parents’ freedom. The abrupt change of focus was deliberate and for a purpose.
“Cutting to Mike was intentional, to remind those watching the film that there are people in that house who will be affected for decades. Mike was in utero at that point in the house. These are real people, with a real human toll to what is happening. That’s why the film is not just archival, it’s about understanding the journey that was made as a result of 1978.”
While so much of the 1978 footage resonates with today’s national reckoning on race – the way the Move members, almost all of whom were African American, were depersonalized and demonized; the callous violence of the police response; the numbingly long sentences imposed on the nine – one aspect seems to have changed these 40 years. Political and police leaders not only accommodated systemic racism in the 1970s, they spoke the language.
You would not expect a leader today to be heard saying, as the notoriously brutal Rizzo did about Move: “The police will be in there to drag them out by the backs of their necks. They are going to go either the easy or hard way, either standing up or lying down.”
Or another of Rizzo’s remarks: “Get the death penalty back, put them in the electric chair, and I’ll pull the switch.”
Overt, unashamed exhortations to state violence aren’t heard any more these days. Or are they?
In the course of the movie, Oliver interviews Bob Hurst, a former Philadelphia police sergeant and president of the officers’ union, the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police. We have just seen harrowing footage in which one of the Move Nine, Delbert Africa, emerges from the flooded basement of the house with his hands up, naked from the waste up, wholly defenseless and unarmed.
Three police officers are captured on video throwing Delbert to the ground, stomping on his head with their police boots and breaking his jaw with a rifle butt. Then they proceeded to kick his head between them as though they were at soccer practice.
“He was being subdued, let me just put it that way,” was how Officer Hurst described the incident to Oliver on camera. “He was being helped out by three officers, and then promptly went to hospital.”
And then Hurst said it: “But should have went to the morgue.”
Oliver was astonished when he heard a former police officer, in the present day, express regret that Delbert Africa had not been killed by his police attackers. “That’s a scary prospect,” Oliver said. “This is somebody who was supposed to be protecting and serving us. Despite everything our country has been going through, he still thinks it’s OK to share that publicly and brazenly.”
Oliver thinks that Hurst opened himself up to reveal his dark inner thoughts partly because the interview was conducted alongside a fellow former Philly stakeout officer with whom Hurst began bantering and exchanging “war stories”. It also helped that Oliver ran a lean operation, shooting all the interviews on his own with one camera and no crew, which created a more intimate, trusting environment.
Acting as his own cinematographer and cameraperson also allowed Oliver to be flexible and mobile. When Mike Africa Jr called him in June 2018 to tell him that his mother Debbie was finally about to be released, Oliver was at a film festival in Florida.
He grabbed his kit, jumped on a plane and was in Philadelphia a few hours later. He and Africa together made the seven-hour drive to Cambridge Springs women’s prison and were there, camera rolling, when Debbie walked out of the gates.
Oliver was there too when Mike Africa Jr’s father was released four months later. He had his camera rolling when Mike Africa Sr and Debbie saw each other and hugged for the first time in 40 years.
This was the conclusion of a long journey, for Mike Africa Jr and his parents, but for Oliver as well. “It was magical,” he said. “It was beautiful. To see them together at last, to see Mike with both of them. I was just happy for all of them.”
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