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Review: ‘40 Years a Prisoner’ reflects longstanding institutional racial injustice

MOVE members in Philadelphia, from the documentary "40 Years a Prisoner."
(HBO Documentary Films)

Tommy Oliver’s blistering documentary “40 Years a Prisoner” lands on home screens with the Black Lives Matter movement and demands to defund police still vivid in the zeitgeist following massive nationwide protests and confrontations fueled by the outgoing Trump administration’s “law and order” stance. That’s not simply a matter of perfect timing, but rather a shameful reminder that works of art about racial injustice as it relates to law enforcement and, ironically, the justice system in this country have perennial relevance.

At the heart of this feature is a series of violent incidents that took place in 1978 West Philadelphia targeting the residence of John Africa’s revolutionary organization MOVE, which preached a return to a natural lifestyle and renounced imposed norms and values. Members symbolically took the last name Africa to denote they were a family. The city’s efforts to evict MOVE, after deeming them a dangerous cult, culminated in a shootout leaving one officer dead. The official story claimed the bullet came from those inside the property, and while most evidence was destroyed, nine Black men and women wound up charged with third degree murder. (In 1985, after another dramatic confrontation, police dropped a bomb on MOVE headquarters, killing 11 people and demolishing two square blocks of homes.)

Oliver handles the ire-inducing true story by intermingling a historical portion built from archival material, news coverage, and hindsight interviews with those who lived it first-hand; and Mike Africa Jr.’s zealous crusade to free his parents, both of whom have spent four decades behind bars for the MOVE case. Ordinary but sufficiently effective in its execution, the film’s most resonant segments are those where the upstanding son reflects on his torn family and a rotten system in which paroling alleged offenders even after so much time is seen as an affront to the toxic institutional loyalty to police.

Saying the quiet part out loud, some of the white subjects interviewed reveal their biases as they express their present opinions on the past events and the Black people affected, calling them “vulgar” and using other pejorative adjectives. Footage of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s mayor at the time and a predecessor to President Trump’s grotesque arrogance, proves that such racist ideology came, as it still does, from the top down.

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While “40 Years a Prisoner” concludes on a bittersweet yet healing epilogue, seeing Rizzo furiously blaming the media for capturing and divulging images of monstrous cops brutalizing a MOVE member broadens our understanding that the oppressors’ scapegoating and dehumanizing tactics are not new but tried, tested, and recycled.

’40 Years a Prisoner’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Playing: Available Dec. 4 via Laemmle Virtual Cinema; debuts Dec. 8 on HBO and HBO Max


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