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.
Hours before the tickets were available for sale, something even more remarkable took place. Higher-ups at the theater had the showing cancelled. Was Shaq part of that decision? I can’t say definitively because everyone’s lips are buttoned tighter than a pair of black jeans in Hoboken. Here, however, is what we do know. Shaq, who was raised for a period in Newark and still has family in the city, is the Cineplex’s co-owner. According to very good authority, Shaq, alongside his security chief, former Newark police officer Jerome Crawford, spoke with the co-Cineplex owners of Boraie Development about the film. Repeated efforts to get comment from O’Neal about the content of that discussion as well as the decision to not show the film have gone unanswered, but here are some other things we know for sure.
When O’Neal purchased the theater, he held a press conference alongside Newark Mayor Corey Booker, and pointedly thanked “the Newark Police Department” which “helped raise” him. The future Hall of Famer has long held court about his dreams of becoming a police officer. He has been sworn in as a “reserve police officer” in both Miami and Los Angeles. When in action, the results have been very unfortunate. On a ride-along, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an internal affairs report was issued after Shaq was accused of shoving the head of a suspect in a toilet and flushing repeatedly. He was cleared of these charges and his connection to the police has gone unbroken, including charity work with the Fraternal Order of Police. The FOP, once again, has spent decades agitating for Mumia’s execution.
Shaq and the theater aren’t commenting about the cancellation of the Newark showings, but Mumia is. He said, “Now it seems there are a lot of people in power who don’t want you to see Long Distance Revolutionary. Ask yourself, why? Newark, New Jersey, is more than just a depressed city. It was once the place where famed black leader and controversial figure Paul Robeson lived, studied and became the Paul Robeson who became the center of history. Controversy isn’t a bad thing—it’s a good thing, but it’s always what the controversy is about. A lot of people don’t want you to see Long Distance Revolutionary…. Ask yourself, why? And then make your own decision. I know you’ll make the right one.”
I do hope Shaquille O’Neal and the executives at Boraie Development answer for themselves. They should disavow the mere thought that they would Bigfoot a film just because they find it offensive. What’s particularly sad is that Shaq could use his ample powers of speech and considerable cultural platform to speak out against the film if he’s so inclined. Here’s a scenario for Shaq: show the film. Then go onstage after the debut to explain why he thinks that Mumia should be punished and the film disrespects the police. Let him publish an oped in the Newark Star-Ledger. He should, if inclined, kick the film’s butt like it was Greg Ostertag. But don’t do this. Whether you ordered the film not to run or are just looking the other way, don’t deny the city of Newark, which you claim to love, a film just because you have the power to do so. Those aren’t the actions of The Big Aristotle. They’re the actions of a big bully.
The long aftermath of 9/11 is a tale of torture, disappearance and war crimes. Read David Cole’s take in this week’s issue of The Nation.