Stephen Vittoria’s Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary is an especially egregious example of documentary-as-hagiography, a biographical portrait that purports to tell the true story of the titular imprisoned, controversially outspoken death-penalty opponent, but eventually degenerates into an orgy of congratulation. Not that Mumia Abu-Jamal doesn’t deserve the treatment. While many to this day still debate the fairness of the trial that sent him to death row for allegedly killing a Philadelphia police officer during a routine traffic stop, Vittoria deemphasizes the controversies surrounding the trial in order to focus on Abu-Jamal’s work as a writer and activist, tracing his interests all the way from his beginnings as a black nationalist and Black Panther member in his teens to his professional career as a public-radio journalist up until the fateful night in 1981 that would eventually send him into Philadelphia’s prison system. The potentially soul-crushing circumstances of his imprisonment, however, didn’t break his impassioned activist spirit, nor dim the eloquence of his prose: Even as Abu-Jamal remained a prisoner all these years, he’s managed to reach a wide audience through his many books and radio commentaries, some of which are read aloud in front of the camera by various artists/performers.
Abu-Jamal’s story is undoubtedly heroic and inspiring, but that shouldn’t excuse the irritatingly insistent one-sidedness of Vittoria’s film. There are fleeting moments during the first hour of the doc where the film exudes some willingness to let facts speak for themselves. Is it such an admirable sign of Abu-Jamal’s uncompromising nature when we discover that he turned down a major journalism position from a radio station because he was asked to cut off his dreadlocks? Vittoria’s approach to presenting this particular anecdote on screen leaves at least a little bit of room for personal judgments to enter.
But such relatively multifaceted moments are few and far between. It’s fairly easy to discern Vittoria’s sympathies right at the beginning, with an opening montage of Philadelphians and right-wing pundits heartlessly trashing Abu-Jamal as a “cop killer” and “communist” while “The Star-Spangled Banner” ironically plays in the background. This opening gives one an early indication of Vittoria’s simplistic us-versus-them approach to argumentation, one which even goes so far as to resort to insults and mocking asides to make its points. At least the equally pugnacious Michael Moore has the guts to put himself in front of the camera in his documentaries and thus let us know right off the bat that we’re seeing things from his perspective. Vittoria, however, hides behind a panoply of on- and off-screen narrators, one of which actually labels Buzz Bissinger—who wrote a Vanity Fair story back in 1999 purportedly exposing Abu-Jamal’s lies—as the journalist “who really likes calling people ‘douche juice’.”
The hero worship gets truly suffocating during the seemingly endless second hour of Long Distance Revolutionary, a wide-ranging look at Abu-Jamal’s legacy. When one educator in the film baldly suggests that anyone who doesn’t teach Abu-Jamal’s writings isn’t being a good educator, one can’t help but imagine the halo that Vittoria seems insistent on placing around his subject’s head. Even with the considerable heft of seeing luminaries such as Alice Walker, Cornel West, and Angela Davis singing Abu-Jamal’s praises, is this kind of premature canonization really that different from, or preferable to, the demonization of Mumia Abu-Jamal in which his opponents engage?