Working with Snoop Dogg, Neil scored the music to the story of Mumia Abu Jamal, a prisoner who has been on death row for over 25 years. Within the world of American politics, Mumia’s case is a lightning rod for many issues that characterise the key differences between the American justice system and that of the rest of the civilised world.
DFGDocs, June ’09
The personal is the political once again in this powerful film about America’s most well known death row inmate, Mumia Abu Jamal. On the 9th of December 1981 Mumia was driving in his cab in the early hours of the morning when he saw an altercation between a white police officer and his brother Billy Cook. Mumia went closer to see what was happening. Gunshots ensued. Moments later police officer Daniel Faulkner lay dead on the street and Mumia had been shot in the chest. He was arrested shortly after. On that very same date, Will Francome was born.
In Prison My Whole Life looks at the life and times of Mumia Abu Jamal through the eyes of 25 year-old Will Francome. Mumia is a somewhat unwilling celebrity within the world of American politics. A figure fêted or vilified depending on which side of the political spectrum you stand on, Mumia’s case is a lightning rod for many issues that mark American politics today, most considerably the death penalty and racial politics. But his case has reached an international audience too. His cause has been taken up by Amnesty International and the likes of Nelson Mandela, and Mumia has been conferred as an honorary citizen of Paris as well as Venice.
The film’s conceit is a simple and effective one. Will Francome, in his mid-twenties and free, decides to find out about the man who has been in prison his whole life. But it isn’t just an accident of time that connects the two. Will grew up with the knowledge of Mumia’s cause through his mother’s work, campaigning and demonstrating as a Mumia supporter.
The film follows Will as he tours the US judicial system to learn about the facts and issues surrounding Mumia’s convoluted and highly contested case. Stylish graphics present the order of events as described by the court hearings in a clear and simple manner. But, as the film progresses, Will and the audience learn that things aren’t as clear as they seem. Police ineptitude, racial bias, lying witnesses and a massively divided Philadelphia made sure that the case was never going to be a straightforward process.
The film’s key strength is that it manages to pack an extremely large amount of information about Mumia’s case and its ramifications without losing focus. Interviewing a host of iconic figures from America’s nascent but thwarted countercultural movement of decades gone, and some of today’s biggest names – Snoop Dogg’s interview perhaps being the most surprising, but also one of the most revealing and powerful – we come to learn that Mumia’s case is an inextricably political affair.
The sheer volume of talking heads each offering their own unique perspectives are crafted in a fashion that doesn’t take the focus away from Mumia. Perhaps most disappointingly, but for reasons beyond the filmmaker’s control, Mumia was unable to be interviewed. Instead the film is punctuated with Mumia’s prison communiqués; addresses direct from death row that went out on various radio stations and the internet. In one scene, as Will drives to Pennsylvania state prison to speak with Mumia, we hear Mumia’s soft but commanding voice reflect on his time inside a cell which he states is “no bigger then your bathroom.” The scene, simple in its effect, acts as a powerful invocation of imprisonment. Disappointingly, the family of Daniel Faulkner (the policeman who was killed) and the police refused to participate in the film. In many ways this leaves much out, potentially making the case for the film – and Mumia’s retrial – lopsided. Nevertheless, their unwillingness to contribute serves to make Will’s inquiry into Mumia’s case a more personal affair.
The film’s energy and narrative create an intimate and engaging investigation into what is perhaps a well-worn case. The filmmakers make the connection between Mumia and the wider world without losing focus, and in doing so help achieve a more poignant and lasting effect about an individual on death row.
An engaging documentary about a highly contested case in US politics, In Prison My Whole Life is an important and timely piece that will resonate with you for some time.
Phil Moore, ‘DFGDocs’ – The Documentary Filmmakers Group website.