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Interview: Documentarian Tommy Oliver Reflects on ’40 Years a Prisoner’

Back in 1978, one of the most controversial shootouts took place in Phildaelphia, when a standoff between police and a predominantly Black primitivist group called MOVE resulted in the death of a police officer. In the aftermath, several members of the group were imprisoned, including a man named Mike Africa Sr. and his wife Debbie Africa. Decades later, their son Mike Africa Jr. became a dedicated champion for their release, a struggle that is illuminated in Tommy Oliver’s engrossing documentary 40 Years a Prisoner. Read below for an edited chat with Oliver, as he discussed the making of a film about a shameful event in American history.

Shane Slater: What was your entry point to this project? Was it the MOVE group or Mike Africa Jr.’s personal experience with his parents?

Tommy Oliver: It was actually both. I knew a bit about MOVE growing up in Philadelphia but I didn’t have any details. And then at some point I went down some research rabbit holes, reading article after article. I found dozens of boxes of content. I got introduced to Ramona Africa and through her I met Mike. Mike and I hit off pretty quickly.

What I realized was, here was a person whose parents were still in prison along with the other 9 who were still alive, and he was born in prison. And despite all of what happened to him, he didn’t have a shred of bitterness about it. He was a good guy who just wanted his parents home. I thought that was something really special. That’s what really set me on the journey of following his quest to bring his family home. And then understanding what happened in the first place.

SS: The film has such powerful archival footage. What was it like to go through the footage available to shape this final product?

TO: [Laughs]. You say “available” but there is so much of it that took an incredible amount of work to locate. My partners and I went through everything. We went to every single archival house, checked every log, transferred footage that hadn’t been transferred, digitized 10,000 plus pages of court transcripts. It took a long time to go through all of that, in order to understand what happened. We spent month after month trying to understand things and piece things together from the different perspectives. We wanted to make sure we told a balanced story and an accurate story. A story where we could corroborate things. But within all that, a story that had heart.

SS: Watching the film and learning about MOVE reminded me of some of the historical respectability politics surrounding Rastafarianism in Jamaica. How has the perception of MOVE changed, if at all?

TO: That was one of the things I unearthed in the research, was just how MOVE had been misrepresented in the media. How they were demonized for things that are completely normal today. The idea of dreadlocks, eating raw food, composting, women delivering kids at home. Things that are celebrated today, they were demonized for. They were treated as subhuman and when you treat a group as less than human, you find ways to justify whatever is done to them. We’ve seen that many times in our history. So I think there has been some change in society but I don’t think MOVE has ever really been given their just due.

The film doesn’t glorify them but it says who they were in all of their complexities and nuances. I don’t think many people have seen that. The media perpetuated this idea that was completely inaccurate and missed so many pieces. There are things that people will learn when they see this for the first time and I think as a result of watching this and doing their own research after, they’ll see the way MOVE had been misportrayed and realize that there was so much more to them and the situation.

SS: I found it fascinating how the media was blamed on both sides for how they portrayed the tensions between MOVE and the police. Did this affect your own approach and decisions in portraying these events?

TO: It didn’t. And the reason it didn’t is because I wanted to tell an accurate portrayal. And that determined what I needed to tell that portrayal and how much I needed. We’re not misrepresenting what people say, we’re not taking it out of context. There’s a reason there are no “expert” talking heads. The people I’ve drawn on have firsthand information and they were around. So it was allowing people to offer their perspectives and then trying to look at it objectively.

SS: In this year of a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, how do you think media coverage of police brutality has changed?

TO: Police brutality isn’t getting worse, it’s getting recorded. The difference is, in the absence of that recorded evidence, we are inclined to believe what the police say. We think that they are going to be truthful and represent the situation as it actually was. In this case, it couldn’t have been be further from what actually happened. Yet that’s what most people hear and this would be disseminated in the news and the newspapers and of course, they would justify it. Now it’s a little bit harder because we see those contradictions, we’ve seen the evidence come out.

SS: I love that the film ends on an optimistic note. Did you always know that you would continue following Mike Africa Jr. and his family after their ordeal?

TO: I had no idea where this film was going to end up. I had no idea what was going to happen with Mike, or his parents, or the rest of the MOVE members. It was really just borne out of wanting to be around Mike on his journey. And what happened was a fairytale ending that most of us don’t even allow ourselves to hope for because we know that it’s unlikely. I had also become friendly with him and got to know him, so it was just a natural continuation. We actually wound up shooting quite a bit of footage with them and turned it into a 35-minute epilogue which is primarily from the perspective of Mike Sr and Debbie, where they talk about so much of what they went through up to the present day.

40 Years a Prisoner is now playing on HBO and HBO Max.

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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