Film Review: In Prison My Whole Life

By David Hoskins


“In Prison My Whole Life” is the new documentary about world-renowned political prisoner and death row journalist Mumia Abu Jamal. The film tells the story of Mumia, and the cruel legacy of the U.S. criminal injustice system, through the eyes of William Francome. Francome is a white middle-income activist, the son of a sixties-era radical mother, who was born on December 9, 1981.

As Francome explains in the film, his connection to Mumia is tangential. On the day Francome was born in London, “Over 3,000 miles away Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black Panther and radical journalist, was arrested for the murder of a police officer in Philadelphia. He claimed he was innocent but was sentenced to death and has been awaiting execution ever since. … In that time Mumia has become the most famous and controversial death row inmate in America.”

Despite this incidental connection to Mumia, the film is refreshing in that it dissects Mumia’s case from the perspective of a youth activist.

Angela Davis–a former Black Panther and one-time political prisoner herself–Alice Walker, Amy Goodman and Mos Def are among the activists and thinkers featured in the film as they speak out against Mumia’s incarceration.

“In Prison My Whole Life” is equal part legal review of the facts surrounding Mumia’s case, dialogue about race and class in the United States, and agitprop that leaves viewers with a sense that something is seriously wrong with this country’s judicial system.

The film examines the racist legacy of the Philadelphia Police Department, the recanted testimony from a key prosecution witness and the racist outlook of the judge in the case, who was overheard on the first day of trial using a racial epithet to describe his intention to “fry” Mumia. The film tactfully weaves together these facts with questions about prosecutorial misconduct in misleading the jury and racial imbalance in jury selection to cast reasonable doubt on Mumia’s guilt.

“In Prison My Whole Life” provides a persuasive and thorough explanation of the legal and factual basis for reasonable doubt in Mumia’s case. Activists concerned with freeing Mumia, however, must move from discussing reasonable doubt to proclaiming Mumia’s innocence.

Mumia has always professed his innocence. He resisted giving his full account of events during his original trial because he did not want to legitimize the virtual lynching that was passed off for legal process in Judge Albert Sabo’s courtroom. Since that time Mumia has signed an affidavit providing a complete account of what happened the night he was arrested–a fact the film overlooks.

Francome is clearly fascinated with the legal details of Mumia’s case. This is understandable given the contradictions that swirl around the evidence used to convict Mumia.

This same fascination, however, misses the larger point of Mumia’s incarceration. There is more than a reasonable doubt as to Mumia’s innocence. The state’s prosecution of Mumia was politically motivated and did not meet the standard necessary to convict someone of murder. Any strategies to free Mumia that rely exclusively on the same legal system that wrongfully convicted him are likely to fail.

The film implicitly acknowledges this fact during its brief examination of the Angela Davis case. As the film indicates, Davis was a Black Panther and communist organizer who was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in the 1970s. President Nixon declared her a terrorist before her trial even started. She spent 18 months in prison on charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and homicide. Mass public support led to her acquittal on all charges.

The same film that recognizes the role of the mass movement in freeing Davis paid secondary attention to the movement that exists to free Mumia, with an overemphasis on legal strategy. But if the law alone were enough, Mumia would already be free. The conditions necessary to end Mumia’s incarceration can only be achieved by expanding the movement that has been fighting to free him.

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