'40 Years a Prisoner' – A siege, a sentence and a reunion
One man’s quest to free his parents from unjust prison sentences is the subject of a documentary upcoming on HBO.
“40 Years a Prisoner,” premiering Tuesday, Dec. 8, recalls a 1978 shootout at the Philadelphia compound of the black militant group MOVE that left one police officer dead and 16 police and firefighters injured. Nine of its members, known as the MOVE 9, were convicted of the cop’s murder and sentenced to lengthy prison terms – despite the fact that only one shot killed the officer and there was no proof it came from any of them.
The film, which was directed by Philadelphia native Tommy Oliver (“1982”), follows Mike Africa Jr. in his efforts to get parents Mike Sr. and Debbie Africa out of separate Pennsylvania prisons and reunite them for the first time in four decades.
Oliver became friends with the younger Africa during filming and was impressed by his healthy outlook despite his history.
“Upon meeting him, a number of things sort of became clear,” Oliver says. “One, I had no idea that his parents were still in prison at that point. Two, I didn’t know that he had literally been born in prison. And three, that he was fighting and had been fighting for their release for decades. And those three things, when coupled with the understanding that this guy who had never seen his parents outside of prison, who had never seen his parents together didn’t have a shred of bitterness about him, who was such a good, positive, happy person was something that I found very special.”
MOVE was a controversial group that advocated a back-to-nature lifestyle, animal rights and political radicalism. But their compound in West Philadelphia was full of stray animals, dirty and rat-infested, much to their neighbors’ anger, and its members had a history of run-ins with police, who often responded with overwhelming force.
Those tensions came to a head on Aug. 8, 1978, when the property was ordered to be raided by Frank Rizzo, the city’s no-nonsense mayor.
“Rizzo ran the city under the idea that you could have safe streets or civil liberties, pick one,” Oliver says. “That was a problem in particular for MOVE, where they challenged authority or they challenged things that were inappropriate, including excessive force and all sorts of things. And for the police at that time to be questioned in any sort of way was a big problem.”
Ultimately, Oliver feels this is a cautionary tale with relevance today.
“What MOVE had been fighting against 40 years ago – police brutality, wrongful incarceration, systemic racism – were the same things we’re fighting against,” he says. “And so I just started shooting.”