In present-day discussions about rioting, looting and peaceful protest, there is an underlying understanding that no matter what the means of protest and survival, Black people will always be assigned violence regardless. 40 Years a Prisoner is a lyrical conversation between archival footage of the Philadelphia collective MOVE and the mixed community response to their lifestyle, and a real-life timeline of Mike Africa Jr., son of two incarcerated MOVE members, attempting to free his parents after they’ve spent 40 years within prison.
We begin with Mike Africa Jr., young, eyes hopeful, despite getting ready to visit his father in prison—the only places he’s known his parents to live. He even was born in a correctional facility, as his mother was incarcerated while pregnant with him. He aptly calls the facilities “incorrection” facilities, noting that prisons rarely do the rehabilitation that they claim to do, and instead, becoming physical reminders of the dichotomy of the ‘inside vs the outside.’
Mike Africa’s parents—Mike Sr. and Debbie—along with then incarcerated MOVE members Janet, Janine, Eddie, and Delbert Africa, were part of the MOVE collective that was built on the ideals of the elusive Joe Africa. Their lifestyle was a commitment to the earth and the way that it supports and continues the cycles of life, and the abstention from the use and participation of technology. Their goals were to provide community housing, raise awareness to animal and prisoner rights and they even refused to call their antagonists—the Philadelphia police—pigs, citing that pigs are alive and provide life, instead the police were “motherfuckers.”
There is debate on whether this group can be considered a cult, and whether their principles posed a danger to their children and youth within the commune, as shown with direct interviews of police officers present during the time, who worked for and under unrelentless mayor and former police officer, Frank Rizzo. The film leaves this open. Showing both close familial ties between the people of the commune and their love of their children as a village, but also the poverty-stricken and barren conditions they ended up residing in as a result of their distance from society.
If anything, this film posits itself as an intimate piece closely related to the stakes that the Black community has in understanding the targeted violence against MOVE, and more widely, Black people in the city of Philadelphia. But it takes on a beautifully subtle stance in allowing police, reporters and officials, to accidentally tell on themselves in their practice of violence against MOVE and their conscious or unconscious commitment to anti-Blackness. This clear and loyal voice to Black victims of the eventual fatal bombing of the MOVE house and their muddled trial in the death of an officer during the event, is due both to the direction of Tommy Oliver, filmmaker and BLM protest photographer, and production by Philly-born musician Black Thought, a member of the group “The Roots.”
They provide a perspective that is damningly neutral. In my opinion, giving too much grace to those who permitted the brutality against MOVE and the Black population of Philadelphia. But this ends up working in the film’s favor. 40 Years a Prisoner demonstrates the lasting, harsh effects of decades-long trauma and imprisonment, and also the nonchalance that police officers of the time had, in regard to Black lives. But the interpretation is all up to the audience. All this film does is present the facts from all possible angles. A striking part of the film is shortly after its climax at the mid-point. It smacks pictures and videos of a young Delbert Africa attempting to escape the quickly flooding and gas-filled basement (at the doing of police officers infiltrating the home in their last stance), and cops removing him and beating him thereafter. It takes the time to set up the scene, and then layer audio of police officers and lawyers claiming that he both held a weapon and hit an officer. Neither of which appear to be true via the images.
This documentary does not aim to be overly cinematic or beautiful. It is a straightforward stitchwork of past and present—a memorial to the deaths and lives of MOVE members and the ultimate question of who possesses the right to defense and individual choice of lifestyle. From the hopeful and glowing presence of Mike Africa Jr., (who also makes an appearance in fellow TIFF film The Inheritance) as he ultimately is reunited with his parents, to the aged faces of MOVE members now 40 years after their trauma.
MOVE (notably not an acronym for anything) was a group plagued by community complaints for appearance, supposed filth and lack of childcare, and scolded for their abstinence in worldly possessions and culture. The credits of the film feature a cheerfully juxtaposed section to the cruelty in the previous parts of the film. This last act leaves us reveling in the beauty of their resilience—perhaps that optimism is a symptom of the MOVE philosophy.