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.