Movies: The Gospel According to Tigre

Philly filmmaker Tigre Hill was skewered by the black establishment for his anti-John Street documentary The Shame of a City. Now, with his controversial new anti-Mumia movie, the knives will be even sharper

WE’RE IN THE cutting room. Actually, we’re upstairs in the Wynnefield house where Tigre Hill grew up. This was his grandfather’s bedroom when Hill was a kid. Since 1998, he’s lived in the house mostly alone. It looks just like a house that used to belong to a hardworking mom — china cabinet in the living room, long blue drapes, encyclopedias on the shelves — that has suffered frat-house entropy in the care of a distracted 42-year-old single guy. (“Please do not look at the kitchen,” Hill begs.)

[sidebar]The only area that doesn’t resemble a detonated Blockbuster video store is this uncluttered former bedroom, where at the moment Hill and his associate producer, Matt Cohn, are editing The Barrel of a Gun, Hill’s documentary about the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. The film’s take on the matter is that Mumia is guilty as charged — and convicted — in the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Hill released an incendiary three-minute trailer for Barrel in September, and the global outrage arrived on cue. Abu-Jamal supporters began labeling it an “anti-Mumia lynch-mob movie” and Hill an Uncle Tom. Protest-tourists from around the world started printing up signs to wave at the film’s premiere, which may be in Philadelphia, maybe this month or next, at least according to the last time Hill pushed back the timetable.  

On a Power Mac screen, with Hill leaning back on a little couch, Cohn brings up archival footage of a segment about the Black Panthers that 60 Minutes aired in 1970. Mike Wallace is showing a Panthers-run day-care center in “a black ghetto” in Brooklyn. Kindergarten-age kids are holding little safety scissors for a crafts project while their teacher leads them in a cheery fists-raised chant: “Off the pigs!”

Hill’s exposition in Barrel places Mumia in the context, and under the influence, of a radical culture that viewed cop-killing as a form of empowerment. “The first part of the film is called ‘Revolution,’” Hill told me. “It goes into Mumia’s background, all the people who influenced him — the Panthers, Mao Tse-tung, Che Guevara — and what they believed. Basically, they wanted to start urban guerrilla warfare in the United States. There was a lot of cop-killing going on back then, targeted cop killings. When you put that in context all together, I think it gives you a new view of the whole incident.”

Abu-Jamal, at age 15, helped start the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panthers, after he’d been attacked by white goons and kicked by a cop at a George Wallace rally in North Philadelphia. It was Mao who said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” As a teenager, Mumia recited the line to Acel Moore of the Inquirer, and the prosecution later used the newspaper quote against him at his sentencing hearing. Now it’s the name of Hill’s movie. Barrel, Hill says, will reveal new information about the night of the shooting, and offer a theory that the killing of Faulkner was premeditated, a setup.