Shaquille O’Neal. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Why did Newark’s only movie theater, co-owned by Shaquille O’Neal, just pull a scheduled showing of a documentary about Mumia Abu-Jamal? No one is talking, but this is a story that stinks worse than the Jersey swamps. For the unfamiliar, Mumia Abu-Jamal is perhaps the most famous of the 2.4 million people behind bars in the United States. He has spent the last three decades as not only a prisoner but a political lightning rod, with the Fraternal Order of Police demanding his execution after the killing of Philadelphia Officer Daniel Faulkner. Following thirty years on death row, Mumia’s sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole last year.
Mumia’s supporters, which include Amnesty International, the European Union and Nelson Mandela, have continued to point out both the inconsistencies in the state’s case and the prosecution’s use of political and racially based arguments—leaning on his history as a Black Panther and radical journalist—to assure his conviction. Numerous books and documentaries have made this case. The documentary in question here is something different. Titled MUMIA: Long Distance Revolutionary, its focus is on his contribution as an author and commentator from behind bars. The film is a trenchant look at the way people can produce politics and art in the most dire of circumstances. (Full disclosure: I am briefly interviewed in the film, discussing my correspondence with Mumia about the intersection of sports and politics.)
The film has, by documentary standards, been a box-office success, with sold out shows in Los Angeles, Oakland and New York City. The director and producer, Stephen Vittoria, was especially excited to bring it to Newark, the city of his birth. As he said to me, “I know what Newark has been through. I know what the people of Newark have been through…. The city and people of Newark deserve economic redevelopment as well as access to culture. It seemed like a perfect locale to show the film. The theater announced it and it was ready to play.”
The theater in question, Cineplex 12, Newark’s only major theater, was more than ready. They had put an extraordinary amount of resources into making the film a splash, setting up an exclusive press screening, pitching stories to all the state’s major newspapers and planning a high-profile opening night featuring Newark’s famed poet Amiri Baraka. It’s remarkable for a movie theater to put this much public relations weight behind any film’s opening, let alone a documentary.