Film Threat Review: In Prison My Whole Life

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

2008 SUNDANCE WORLD DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION FEATURE FILM!
Un-rated, 90 minutes
Three and a half stars

“Free Mumia.” Whether or not you know what it means, chances are you’ve heard or seen the slogan somewhere, be it on a concrete wall or in the lyrics to a Rage Against the Machine song. The Mumia in question is an African American man who was arrested for killing a police officer on December 9th, 1981. That was also the same day that William Francome was born. If you’ve never heard of William Francome, that’s hardly surprising. He’s just a guy who was born on the same day that Mumia’s life as he knew it ended. This coincidence of dates is part of what drives Francome’s interest in Mumia’s alleged wrongful arrest and conviction and what ultimately becomes the film “In Prison My Whole Life.” While that connection is, indeed a symbolic one, focusing on it so obstinately plays a part in leading the film astray.

Prior to his arrest, Mumia Abu-Jamal was a political journalist with ties to the Black Panthers. These affiliations, along with extreme examples of racist conspiracy in his hometown of Philadelphia, definitely cast more than just a shadow of a doubt on whether or not he was wrongfully sentenced to death row. In fact, Mumia claims that not only was he defending his brother from a brutal assault by the officer, but that he never even pulled the fatal trigger. The film presents an abundance of evidence suggesting both judicial conspiracy and a fourth man on the scene. By the film’s conclusion, any liberal-voting citizen is going to be convinced of Mumia’s innocence. Unfortunately, it’s effectively preaching to the choir.

William Francome is a twenty-something, politically charged student whose life has been profoundly affected by the Mumia case. He is also precisely the sort of person whom a Mike Huckabee or George Bush Jr., or your average conservative judge would dismiss as a bleeding heart. The same goes for the testimonies of artists like Mos Def and Snoop Dogg. Us card-carrying members of Amnesty International know that the system is broken. We know that racism is alive and well in the United States. We are the people who will watch this movie and shake our heads and maybe send some money to the NAACP. But the people whose minds need to be awakened will dismiss it as liberal propaganda and William Francome as naïve. I don’t know what, if anything, can be done about that. Technically, the film is mostly well done. It does get off topic from time to time (with the aforementioned interviews with musicians) and becomes redundant at other points. Still, it’s something you need to see if you don’t know anything about Mumia or if, somehow, you missed the notion that bigotry is rampant on the police force. Sadly, however, it’s not the sorely-needed red pill for right-wingers. I don’t know if such a thing is possible.

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