Tigre Hill’s Mumia Abu-Jamal Doc Barrel of a Gun: “Deeply, viscerally bad”

The Shame of a City director takes a nosedive

On Tuesday night, Tigre Hill debuted his Mumia Abu-Jamal documentary The Barrel of a Gun at the Merriam Theatre. Writer-at-large Jason Fagone was there and has a few things to say about it.

So you know where I’m coming from, here are two things I believe:

1. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a murderer. He shot and killed police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981.

2. The filmmaker Tigre Hill is a talented, hard-working guy.

I like Tigre. I’ve had beers with him. He’s a Facebook friend. (Although maybe not after this post.) I sent him a fan note after watching his first feature-length documentary, The Shame of a City, which chronicled Philly’s 2003 mayoral election and managed to capture the slapstick weirdness of that political moment. So that’s why this is review is hard for me to write.

I really wanted Hill’s new documentary about the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, The Barrel of a Gun – which I saw Tuesday night at the Merriam along with various denim-jacketed bikers, politicos, a bagpiper, and what seemed like 400 cops – to be good. It’s not. It’s deeply, viscerally bad in ways I’m still trying to puzzle over and recover from. It plays in many spots like a propaganda film created expressly for a single small community — Philadelphia law enforcement — and the tragedy of The Barrel of a Gun is that it’s so confused and disingenuous that it’s ultimately not even much good as propaganda.

For the first 30 or 40 minutes, the movie is pretty even-handed and fact-based. Hill puts you at the scene of the 1981 shooting, recreating it with archival photos and recordings of old police tapes, and he gives you the back-stories of Mumia and Faulkner, intercutting the archival goodies with talking-head interviews of various academics, lawyers, and police officers. (The lighting is good, the sound pops — one nice thing I can say is that Hill nailed the production values.) This part of the film is strong, and it’s fairly persuasive at establishing Mumia’s guilt in the Faulkner murder, a fact that only the delusional contest.

Then something happens. The film pivots, abandons all pretense of journalistic curiosity, and becomes the sort of flat, sentimental video you see on an LCD screen at somebody’s funeral. You get a lot of footage of Faulkner’s widow, Maureen Faulkner, set to swelling string music; you see her going on a book tour with radio host and author Michael Smerconish, who gets so much screen time it starts to feel like product placement. Not that Maureen Faulkner doesn’t deserve our sympathy, but the effect is awkward and ham-handed.

On the other hand, there are interludes about Huey Newton, the Black Panthers, and Mao Tse-tung scored to music so sinister that it approaches self-parody. Whenever Hill talks to a Mumia supporter, it’s invariably some actor (Ed Asner, scratching his bald head), a loudmouth activist (MOVE’s Pam Africa), or a criminal defense attorney. They’re painted as villains and buffoons and used as foils for the movie’s heroes: Faulkner, Faulkner’s widow, Ed Rendell, and even Frank Rizzo, who gets the biggest laugh line of the film, quipping that if the Black Panthers want to cause trouble in Philly they had “better bring gas masks” (I’m quoting from memory).

Obviously, Hill isn’t required to be objective; he’s a filmmaker with a point of view. But the stuff he omits from his movie weakens his case. For instance, there’s not even a token acknowledgment that black people in America and the police haven’t always, uh, gotten along, and that black people in Philadelphia specifically were not always receiving Christmas gift baskets from Frank Rizzo. All of that legitimate historical grievance is ignored and wiped away to make room for scary footage of Black Panthers with guns and Pam Africa calling every third person a motherfucker. I’m not ragging on cops here — I know cops, like cops, talk to cops as part of my job — but if you’re going to spend 20 minutes of screen time dredging up every one of J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoid fantasies about the Black Panthers, and carefully situating Mumia in the context of the rise of black militancy and anti-police violence in America, it seems like you also ought to mention something about the history of police brutality against blacks. If I didn’t know that this movie was made by a black man, I would think it was made by a bigoted white one.

Hill never head-on addresses the argument that regardless of Mumia’s guilt, Mumia didn’t receive a fair trial in 1982 because the judge, Albert Sabo, was prejudiced. This is the most powerful and emotionally compelling argument of Mumia’s defenders — Sabo is a legitimately troubling figure — and instead of dissecting the argument, Hill just ignores it, as if a rational/patriotic American couldn’t simultaneously believe both that Mumia is guilty as hell and that his trial was unfair. From the movie’s perspective, it’s as if the whole concept of due process were invented by hippies, Black Panthers, and Chairman Mao, and this failure actually does a disservice to the cops and prosecutors and judges who have spent years trying to clean up Sabo’s mess.

After the screening, I had a beer with two cops at a nearby bar, and this was their complaint; they said the movie had “good parts” and liked the history of the Panthers and MOVE, but one of the cops griped that he could have “done without the emotional stuff” re: the protesters. He wanted courtroom scenes, he wanted more hard evidence; he wanted the filmmaker to “really bury [Mumia].” (The movie points out that Mumia received a bullet wound on the night of Faulkner’s murder, but we aren’t told that the bullet came from Faulkner’s gun — i.e., that Faulkner was probably shooting at his assailant in self-defense.)

The failure of this movie is damn near tragic. There was a fascinating, complex movie to be made about Mumia — an exploration of why this case has infuriated generations of protesters on both sides. Tigre Hill himself told the Philly Post last week that he personally doesn’t believe in the death penalty. There is room for ambivalence here, and for a filmmaker to challenge our preconceptions.

Toward the end of the showing, a guy a few rows over from me shouted “Kill him!” at the screen. Meaning Mumia. Kill Mumia. Let’s kill the guy and kill him now. Whatever this is, it isn’t art.

Read more about Hill and his film in this article from our May 2010 issue and in this recent Q&A.

  • Tom B

    I can assure you of one thing; Fagone has never read the trial transcripts and knows nothing about this case. Typical leftist and a sad excuse for a “reporter”

  • Tom B

    There are no “courtroom scenes” you idiot

  • jimmy

    I say soros or journalist had something to do with this. are you a robot or a parrot both can’t think for themselves.

  • Jean Pennie

    Wow, so everyone who enjoyed the film – as I did – is a bigot by extension? Hmmmm … I can only guess that you are not from Philly and don’t have a clue as to what it’s like growing up in the city’s neighborhoods. For those of us who did grow up during the period the moving flashed back through, we saw the reality we grew up with replaying itself on the big screen. And I am not a biker, politico, bagpipe player, or cop – but I do work in a location that sees an annual pro-Mumia rally and those people and their behavior were portrayed very realistically; there’s no surprise about why they protest as they hate “the man” and “the system” and Mumia is merely a catch-phrase for their cause.

  • Bruce

    Tom B. proves the point of this well-written article: there are strong reasons to believe Mumia is guilty, so why resort to stacking the deck? Fagone demonstrates that he knows far more than “nothing” about the case and the “idiot” who said he wanted “courtroom scenes” was a police officer, not Fagone. I really don’t get how thinking Mumia is a murderer makes Fagone a “typical leftist.”

    I assume that Tom B. and I both hold the belief that Mumia is a murderer but, after reading his comments, it’s a little embarrassing to think that I have any opinion in common with him.

  • Melissa Kennedy

    I couldn’t disagree more with you. For full disclosure, I helped promote the film and planned the event at the Merriam. While you can certainly argue which narrative Tigre chose to put in his film, the film itself is visually striking and beautifully edited. (I have 3 Emmy’s so I feel like I know something about production quality.) Also to note, when the movie was over, Tigre got a standing ovation. Now that doesn’t mean you have to love the film but your headline and article are just off-base. It’s a very well-done documentary. “Deeply, Viscerally bad” is something you would say about Mumia. Not a film and least of all this one. I also hope you paid for your ticket.

  • HERBERT HOOVER

    OH BOY, ANOTHER CONTROVERSY.. I PREFER THE VICK QB ISSUE OVER THIS ONE. AT LEAST THAT ISSUE APPEARS TO BE BLACK AND WHITE. UPS. MEA CULPA

    OH WELL GO PHILLIES…………….

  • Nancy C Fecca

    If you are going to throw out words like “prejudiced” when talking about a fine man like Judge Sabo… prove it!!! Seeing as the United States Supreme Court rejected the appeal. Twice I might add. I don’t see where your story holds water. The family should sue you for slander. Shame on you sir.

  • Dave McCann

    Normally, I would not waste my time even replying to such idiotic rhetoric. However, I could not stand by and watch a great man be slandered.

    The Honorable Judge Albert F. Sabo was a man I had the pleasure of knowing personally. He was honest, bright, compassionate, and an incredibly strong person.

    The Judge and his family were the silent sufferers during this whole ordeal. Boxes of death threats were received in addition to taunts and unsubstantiated maligning of his good name and character. PLUS, his home address was leaked out and some of those same hostile groups portrayed in the film appeared in the same way on his front lawn.

    Through it all, the Judge was a professional. He courageously walked through the protestors every day. He never made the trial about him but rather about the facts. Unlike many of today’s media craving judges who never seem to get enough print and television time of themselves, this Judge knew that was wrong.

    The author of this article blasts the film for not being balanced which begs the question: “Where is your balanced reporting on the Judge?” Next time you want to slander someone, at least do enough research to spell their name correctly. He is Albert F. Sabo not Albert Sabo Jr. Then again if you did your research and read the trial transcripts, you would have already known that.
    Your hypocritical approach is disappointing but not surprising. You are just one of many irresponsible media representatives portraying yourself as a “journalist”.

    What is so ironic is that Judge Sabo deliberately stayed out of the media circus that the author of this article seems qualified to be the ringleader of.

  • Scott G

    Judge Sabo wasn’t a “jr” dipshit. He wasn’t racist either. Why wouldn’t the supreme court accept the appeals if he didn’t get a fair trial? Did you do any research on this… At all? You obviously didn’t even “wiki” him to get his name right. I would be so embarrassed to be you right now.

    Stick to reviewing Disney films and high school sports big guy, you’ll be a real reporter someday!

  • Larry Deiterle

    I saw the movie. It was about as balanced as it could possibly be. The truth means very little to a Mumia supporter. Fagane is a man of the left. What else is there to say?

  • MXL

    OK, I have two things to say:

    1. To the author, if you believe that he did not receive a fair trail, how can you also be so certain of Mumia’s guilt?

    2. To those citing the Supreme Court’s refusal to accept Mumia’s appeals as further proof of his guilt, I’d like to play devil’s advocate for a second. Speaking totally hypothetically, if Mumia was set up and wrongly imprisoned as a result of the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), as many of his supporters believe, would it be too far-fetched to believe that the Supreme Court could see granting him an appeal as an affront to said program?

  • http://www.daroncox.org rick morris

    To cite higher courts upholding previous decisions doesn’t mean justice was served. Da’Ron Cox is an innocent citizen in Pennsylvania who is serving life in prison based solely on evidence that directly contradicts the coroner’s report. Multiple courts have upheld the decision based on technicalities that essentially add up to ‘while the appeal has presented a preponderance of evidence to show Mr. Cox’ innocence, his previous lawyers didn’t do their job so we’re not going to consider the evidence – case dismissed and an innocent man will remain in jail because of bad lawyers.’ The guilt or innocence of Mumia or Da’Ron should be determined by an examination of the evidence and the court’s due process must be scrutinized. Law and technicalities that build careers too often trump justice, making it a legal system and not a justice system.

  • M Torr

    I just Jason’s story concerning Emmanual Freeman of Germantown. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.