The case against Mumia

A pro-Mumia Abu-Jamal rally, top; protests are expected Tuesday at the premiere. Officer Faulkner's widow, Maureen, shown at his grave, is to attend the Merriam Theater screening.
A pro-Mumia Abu-Jamal rally, top; protests are expected Tuesday at the premiere. Officer Faulkner's widow, Maureen, shown at his grave, is to attend the Merriam Theater screening.

Filmmaker Tigre Hill marshals the evidence in "The Barrel of a Gun," premiering here Tuesday night.

Posted: September 21, 2010

After four years of work, personal attacks, and hours of interviews that stretched from Center City to Hollywood to St. Denis, France, filmmaker Tigre Hill is ready to unveil The Barrel of a Gun, his documentary about the 1981 murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.

And, not surprisingly, supporters of convicted killer and death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal - who has become a worldwide cause celebre for anti-death row activists - are right on Hill's tail.

With Faulkner's widow, Maureen, in attendance, protests expected, and security provided by members of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, which has endorsed his film, Hill will premiere The Barrel of a Gun at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Merriam Theater, around the corner from where Faulkner was shot on Dec. 9, 1981. Tickets are $46.99, in honor of Faulkner's badge number, and proceeds will go to the Daniel Faulkner Educational Grant Fund.

An hour later, at the Ritz East, filmmakers Johanna Fernández, a Baruch College professor, and Kouross Esmaeli of Big Noise Films will screen their pro-Mumia film, Justice on Trial, four years in the making but expedited to challenge Hill.

About the competing film, a somewhat exasperated Hill said he would not comment on a film he had not seen. Of his own work, he said: "It's going to enlighten people."

"The truth has always been there," Hill said last week, standing near 13th and Locust, where Faulkner was killed nearly 29 years ago. Abu-Jamal was found a few feet from Faulkner's body, shot in the chest with his gun nearby. "Nothing has changed. It's just a matter of who's willing to say what."

Hill said he struggled with the sheer volume, power and scope of the story, perhaps the most incendiary homicide in the city's history, a story that continues to resonate globally. He likened the process to "taking War and Peace or Crime and Punishment and making a movie out of it. You have to make decisions."

In the end, he made a film that places Abu-Jamal in the context of two movements he was associated with: the Black Panthers and MOVE. The film documents the Panthers' advocacy of guerrilla tactics and their anti-police rhetoric (Off the Pig!), and shows both organizations to be engaged in violent struggles with police. Abu-Jamal, a radio reporter in Philadelphia, joined the Panthers when he was 16, and was later associated - some said obsessed - with MOVE.

Hill attempts to show that the killing of Faulkner had echoes of a 1967 killing linked to the Black Panthers: that of Officer John F. Frey, shot on a street in Oakland, Calif., a crime for which Black Panther founder Huey Newton was convicted, though that verdict was later reversed.

The movie flashes a photo of a VW Beetle driven by Newton - and used by Panthers patrolling neighborhoods for incidents of police brutality - the same model car driven by Abu-Jamal's brother, William Cook, when he was stopped by Faulkner.

His film also recalls the 1970 killing of Fairmount Park Sgt. Frank Von Colln a week before the Black Panthers held a national convention in Philadelphia, an event that pitted Frank Rizzo's police against the militant group. Russell Shoats, a member of the Black Unity Movement, was convicted of the killing.

Hill raises the possibility that the homicide was an ambush in which Abu-Jamal wanted to kill a police officer, in keeping with the philosophy of Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon, who saw violence as a liberating act. The question of why Abu-Jamal, driving a cab, was at the scene when his brother was pulled over remains unanswered.

"What I try to show is that there were certain things that were going on, both in Mumia's background, the heroes that he worshipped, the people he supported, the tactics they used," Hill said.

Fernández, a U.S. history professor and one of the creators of the Justice on Trial film, called Hill's characterization of the Black Panthers "a total and horrific distortion of the history of that period."

"The Black Panther Party emerges in Watts in response to decades, almost a century, of police brutality in the African American community," she said, adding that violent, anti-police rhetoric was typical of "many of the radical organizations of the period."

She said her film began as a more general exploration of injustice and racism in the criminal justice system, but then narrowed to the Abu-Jamal case. She said another professor urged her to contact Mumia in prison, which she did, and ended up meeting with him numerous times.

Her film argues that Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial, and that there is exculpatory evidence - in particular, the presence of another man, street vendor Kenneth Freeman, in Cook's car, who some argue was the shooter. Freeman was killed in 1985, found bound and gagged in a vacant lot on the same day as the MOVE bombing, a killing Fernández said has mob overtones. Her film argues that police tampered with evidence.

Fernández said the decision to screen her film the same day as Hill's was made after his trailer appeared to be arguing Abu-Jamal's guilt.

Hill, who has been attacked by critics as "the black face of the FOP," has taken on controversial subjects before, contending in his prior movie, The Shame of a City, that former Mayor John Street cynically used racial politics to get reelected.

Hill's film seeks to cut through the pro-Mumia rhetoric that has galvanized many progressives (including actors Mike Farrell and Ed Asner, both interviewed). One former MOVE member describes Mumia as "big business . . . a brand." The film includes interviews with officers who were first to arrive at the scene, and police audio with Faulkner's voice reporting the car stop.

Among other notable points in the film:

Abu-Jamal's supporters point to his career as a radio journalist to suggest that it would be unlikely that he would so unravel. Hill interviews colleagues who said Abu-Jamal was obsessed with MOVE and was a "ticking time bomb."

Abu-Jamal's attorney, Robert R. Bryan, does not declare Mumia innocent, but says "he is not guilty of murder." Bryan unexpectedly references self-defense when discussing how the justice system was biased toward the death penalty because the victim was a police officer. (Pennsylvania law viewed coming to the aid of a family member as "self-defense.")

Bryan, interviewed in his San Francisco office, vows that he will not allow Mumia to "slip through the net" and be executed. He tells Hill: "A cop dies, somebody's got to die, even if it's a bad cop . . . even if it was self-defense, particularly in a place like Philadelphia, with its right-wing Fraternal Order of Police. Somebody's got to die."

Cook, a witness to the killing, has never testified. In the film, his attorney says he instructed Cook not to give his own account of the case because it would result in Cook's also being charged.

Hill, 43, of Wynnefield, is seeking distribution for the film in this country and in Europe, where the Mumia case continues to consume people (a street in a Paris suburb is named after him). Hill expects protests outside the theater from local activists like MOVE member Pam Africa, but said he did not know whether any of them planned to watch the film as well.

As for Abu-Jamal, 56, he remains on death row awaiting a hearing by the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. An earlier ruling that vacated his death sentence was recently overturned on appeal from the prosecution.


Mumia in Movies

Tigre Hill's The Barrel of a Gun will be shown at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street. Tickets: $46.99 (after Officer Daniel Faulkner's badge number; proceeds will go to the Daniel Faulkner Educational Grant Fund). Information: kimmelcenter.org or 215-893-1999.

Justice on Trial, by Baruch College professor Johanna Fernandez and filmmaker Kouross Esmaeli, will be shown at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Ritz East, 125 S. Second St. Suggested donation: $8 at the door.


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.

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