On the 9th of December 1981 Mumia Abu Jamal, a journalist and activist was driving in his cab in the early hours of the morning when he saw a police officer beating his brother Billy Cook. Mumia went closer to see what was happening. Gunshots ensued. Moment’s 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.
I have been aware of Mumia for as long as I can remember. That’s because he was arrested on the night I was born, for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. As my mom would often remind me, every birthday I had, has been another year that Mumia has spent in prison…. I am going on a journey to find out about the man who has been in prison my whole life.
So begins William Francome’s trip to America from London, documented by director Marc Evan in the feature In Prison My Whole Life to learn about Mumia Abu Jamal’s arrest and trial, police brutality, racism in America, our justice system and Death Row. With him we discover that Charles Graner, one of the prison guards who oversaw the torture at Abu Ghraib, had worked at the Pennsylvania prison where Mumia is incarcerated.
We see through the eyes of Black Panther members how the United States government attempted to destroy that movement–Mumia was the Philadephia branch’s Minister of Communication at age 15–and the reprehensible actions of the Philadelphia police during the two deadly attacks on MOVE, a black urban commune.
The film packs a vast amount of information about Mumia’s case into an hour and a half: Background, forensics, eye witness accounts, and new evidence are presented in a compelling manner, due in part to the use of computer graphics and music, but also because Francome is such an engaging and earnest narrator. He wants to know, he wants to learn– and as he does, so do we.
However, as much as Mumia’s supporters are willing talk, the Fraternal Order of Police and the prosecuting attorney turn down Francome’s requests for interviews, though archival footage is utilized.
From Mos Def being arrested outside the Video Music Awards to Alice walker discussing Hurrican Katrina, Angela Davis and Snoop Dogg each discussing race and politics, and Steve Earle’s recounting of being an invited guest at an execution (he was friends with the prisoner), this film packs in plenty of pop culture political commentary on America’s racist history–and all of it intelligent and thoughtful.
Along with those moments there is a chilling sense that something went very wrong at crime scene and trial, a feeling supported by recently uncovered press photographs, a feeling enhanced by the interview of Mumia’s younger brother, Billy Cook, whose beating by Officer Daniel Faulkner led to the shootings that killed him and wounded Mumia and resulted in Mumia’s trial and incarceration. Billy Cook admits he was too afraid for his life to be a witness at his brother’s first trial, and that he is still afraid for his life. He does say that if a retrial happens, he will speak up.How did a witness who was in Cook’s car that night, end up handcuffed naked in a parking lot dead form "natural causes"? Why did witnesses’ stories change?