The Barrel of a Gun starts out with a brief introduction of Officer Daniel Faulkner and Mumia Abu-Jamal before recounting the events on the night Officer Faulkner was murdered. Many of the police officers who were at the scene of the crime share their recollections of exactly what happened that night. Completely absent are the accounts of Mumia, or his brother Billy, in regards to what they saw that night. This is not an incident of the director leaving out both sides of an argument though. Unfortunately neither Mumia, or his brother, have EVER given any actual account of what happened the night Officer Faulkner was brutally murdered so there is only one side that can possibly be told with any journalistic integrity.
After covering the events on the night of the murder, as well as Officer Faulkner's funeral, we get to hear Mumia's friends recall their reactions to his arrest. The common theme among all of them was the shock they felt when they heard the news and their inability to comprehend how Mumia could have been capable of murder.
In an effort to shed some light on what may have been the cause of Mumia's decision to kill Officer Faulkner the film begins to explore the history of Mumia's primary influences starting with the Black Panthers. The movie shines a spotlight on the history of the Panthers with interviews of former Panthers as well as historical news footage. We get to see why the Black Panthers were created and the devastating repercussions it had on America. Former Panthers and retired police officers share their memories of the tension and violence that grew between the Panthers and the police.
What I found to be particularly shocking was the revelation that many Panthers staged fatal ambushes on police officers. I knew that the Panthers said they wanted to kill the police but I never realized how many times they actually acted on that statement. Another significant fact I was unaware of was that Volkswagen Beetles were the preferred method of transportation for armed Panthers to patrol their neighborhoods looking for instances of police brutality. This could just be a simple case of the Bug being cheap enough for them to afford. Never the less it adds a haunting connection to the car Billy Cook was driving the night Officer Faulkner was murdered.
While Mumia started out as a young Black Panther he eventually became an avid supporter of the back to nature group known as MOVE. Extensive historical footage brings the MOVE organization to life in ways that that those of us who didn’t grow up in Philadelphia during MOVE’s heyday can really appreciate. While I had a cursory knowledge of the tragic confrontation between MOVE and the police on August 8th, 1978 seeing footage of the actual event really hit home. Interviews with Mumia's former radio station colleagues illustrates how Mumia's obsession with MOVE grew to the point of completely overwhelming his objectivity and put him on the path to murder.
"For them when they say the MOVE 9 is innocent, or they say Mumia is innocent, they don't necessarily mean that these people did not shoot those officers. What they mean is they were doing what is right in the eyes of MOVE and therefore they're innocent."
- Former MOVE member
The ONLY thing Mumia has EVER publicly said about his case is that he is innocent of the charges brought against him. He has NEVER ONCE said I didn't shoot Officer Faulkner. At this point the movie shifts focus to Mumia's trial in a quest for answers to that dichotomy. Rather than simply recounting all of the evidence brought against Mumia the movie interviews the various lawyers involved with the case to get their recollections. We are given insight to the reasons for Jamal's belligerent conduct during this trial from people on both sides of this case.
The film doesn't comment on the numerous controversial issues the Mumia's lawyers have raised since Mumia's conviction. I believe this is a wise decision because it could have easily derailed the movie into endless debates about Defense theories that have already been dismissed in Mumia's 3 Post Conviction Release Act hearings. Instead the focus is on the facts as testified to at trial and deemed credible by the courts over multiple appeals. If you want to learn more about these controversial issues, and see exactly why the State determined them to be merit-less, I would advise visiting http://danielfaulkner.com/myths-about-mumia/.
We are then show what I consider to be one of the biggest bombshells in this movie is revealed. Don't blink or you might miss it. The text is as follows:
According to a police source, a few weeks before his murder, Officer Faulkner spotted Billy Cook selling drugs outside of a vending stand.
Officer Faulkner lost him during a chase.
While this might seem to be insignificant it actually provides an explanation for one of the biggest controversies in this case. In Officer Faulkner's last call to the police station, right before his murder, he called for backup. At first he thought an officer in a car would be enough. But then he decides that he needs them to send him a wagon. Officer Shoemaker, one of Officer Faulkner's former co-workers, goes on to say that requesting a wagon indicates that the officer has arrested someone and needs to take them into custody.
Mumia's supporters have ALWAYS tried to say that Officer Faulkner requested a wagon because he could see multiple people in Billy Cook's car and he needed the wagon to handle that many people. They use this as proof that the "real shooter" was actually a passenger in Billy's car who fled the scene after killing Faulkner.
It always struck me as odd that Officer Faulkner was planning on arresting anyone for driving the wrong way on a one way street. But planning to arrest a drug dealer who had escaped Faulkner's previous arrest attempt makes perfect sense. This casts even more doubt on the phantom shooter theory.
The film cuts to a newspaper headline declaring "Abu-Jamal Gets Electric Chair" followed by news footage of the reactions of Mumia's mom and his lawyer to the death sentence. I think Tigre Hill makes a brilliant choice by NOT going in to the arguments for or against the Death Penalty. That could have completely derailed the movie. Mike Farrell is allowed to express some of his anti-Death Penalty views in regards to cop killers being more likely to be executed than other killers but that is as far as it goes.
Mumia's long list of celebrity supporters fill the screen as well as an article questioning why so many of them celebrate a convicted cop killer. Ed Asner and Mike Farrell are allowed to express their opinions about the Death Penalty and their belief that Mumia didn't get a fair trial. They never actually address what was unfair about the trial though.
“We do not have a system of justice where you continue to try a case until you get the verdict you want."
- Rich Costello Former President of the Fraternal Order of Police
Mumia's former attorney Leonard Weinglass is shown in an old interview clip proclaiming Mumia's innocence. Immediately following that Maureen Faulkner, Danny's widow, relates the old saying about telling a lie, telling it big enough, telling it often enough and it becomes truth. This is the only scene in the movie that could be viewed as manipulative in that it doesn't give any basis for Mrs. Faulkner's quote. I think is a missed opportunity. I suspect that Tigre wasn't able to get the clearances to show the Sam Donaldson's 20/20 interview with Mr. Weinglass wherein Mr. Weinglass gets caught blatantly lying multiple times on camera.
We are than treated to clips of various organized protests for and against Mumia. Tigre takes this opportunity to let Mumia's supporters share the reason they are protesting on behalf of Mumia.
The footage is amazing.
"You don't need to know a lot of history about this case. You can look at any aspect of it and find something wrong."
- Unknown Mumia Abu-Jamal supporter
It speaks volumes about the mentality of Mumia's supporters that they can find something wrong with any aspect of a trial they say they don't need to know nothing about.
News footage shows Mumia entering the Courthouse for the first of his three Post Conviction Relief Act hearings. Hugh Burns, one of the Prosecutors handling the first PCRA hearing, relates the story of the last minute announcement by Abu Jamal's attorneys that Mumia's brother Billy Cook would finally testify on Mumia's behalf.
"Clearly he was the only eyewitness that was there who has yet to testify. I don't get a sense of anything one way or the other. They have apparently talked to him and I have not. So I cannot tell you what he will say. I do not know what he will say. ...... Its pure speculation...."
- Billy Cook's lawyer Daniel-Paul Alva
This quote came from news footage of Mr. Alva's reaction to the stunning announcement that his client Billy Cook would be testifying the next day on behalf of his brother Mumia. Unfortunately Billy failed to show up to testify. Instead Daniel-Paul Alva showed up in his place offering to testify on behalf of what he thinks his client would have said had he been there.
The film shifts gears with footage of Arnold Beverly confessing to be the real murderer of Officer Faulkner. Pam Africa draws attention to this by asking why the Police are ignoring his confession. Instead of explaining the actual reasons why Arnold Beverly's confession was ignored we are instead shown footage of various Prosecutors talking about how Mumia's legal team ended up fracturing because half of the team thought Mr. Beverly's confession was complete crap and didn't want to embarrass themselves by presenting it in Court. I think this was a missed opportunity to show the facts and dispel a significant Mumia propaganda point.
At this point we come back to the MOVE organization but in the present times. While a former MOVE member talks about the indoctrination that was forced on him we get to see some chilling footage of young boys shouting pro-MOVE/Mumia rhetoric at a rally into a microphone. What makes it disturbing is that they can't even pronounce the words they are trying to say leading one to believe they don't even understand what they are saying.
Eventually we shift back to the celebrity supporters with footage of Danny Glover speaking at a Pro-Mumia event. I wonder if he appreciates the irony of his words?
"This is a very critical moment in the long fight for justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia Abu-Jamal has not received and has not been able to have his story told within this whole process. We want that. We demand that as a community."
- Danny Glover
Mr. Glover brings up an excellent point in regards to the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia has never had his story told. Despite what Mr. Glover must be thinking the State of Pennsylvania, and its criminal justice system, have never sought to prevent Mumia from telling his story. Mumia is the one who has refused to explain the circumstances that led to him sitting next to a dead cop with Jamal's legally purchased gun next by his side with all of the shots fired. At some point I would think Mumia's supporters would call Mumia on his refusal to give his side of the story. But that would require common sense. I'm getting to old for this shit.
The movie ends with footage of Mumia Supporters intermingled with footage of Maureen visiting her husband's grave. During the credits there are numerous news footage segments covering the deaths of other officers from around the county who were murdered in the line of duty.
Three viewings later I am still digesting the impact of this movie. It is brilliant on many levels. I want to give a thoughtful analysis though instead of just saying it is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen without explaining why.
On a purely technical film school level the production, narrative, and scene placement is excellent. The narrative flows very well. The soundtrack fits each scene perfectly and it doesn't overuse any music in a distracting way. There was absolutely not one second of the film that was boring. There was no pointless filler. As far as the running time it didn't feel too short or too long which is actually surprising because while watching it I really didn't want it to end. It’s a little bit of a conundrum because it was like being presented a good meal with everything I would want. It wasn't missing anything and nothing was shorted. But it was just so good I wanted to come back for seconds.
The most important thing I can say about this documentary is that it deserves to exist. Many documentaries just rehash the basic facts without adding anything new to the documentary's subject matter. The Barrel of a Gun doesn't focus on rehashing the standard debating points about this case. It does go over the basic facts of the crime, as testified to in trial, but then shifts focus to providing a rich historical context to this case that has often been lost to those of us who didn't grow up in Philadelphia in the late 70's/early 80's. One doesn't need to come to this film with an in depth knowledge of the case to be able to understand the film.
Tigre Hill makes a solid case that Mumia's revolutionary activism, combined with his personal frustrations, led him to brutally murder Danny Faulkner. His research is intensive, his facts are sound and his journalistic integrity is flawless.
If one looks at the film objectively it becomes abundantly clear that Tigre Hill went out of his way to keep the film unbiased. Tigre interviewed subjects on both sides of the argument in a non confrontational way that allowed them to express their points of view. He didn't set anyone up to look foolish though a few ended up looking that way once they started talking.
Mumia's Supporters will try to argue that this film is dishonest and one sided because it doesn't indulge their imaginative perspectives on the facts of the case. This is extremely ironic because those words describe ALL of the Pro-Mumia documentaries. This film shows commentary from both sides equally while adhering strictly to proved facts. Unfortunately for Jamal the actual facts make it pretty clear that he is guilty.
Personally I think Tigre showed incredible restraint with some of his interviews. There were quite a few times that I wanted to smack some common sense into a few people's heads. There were a few questions that were left open-ended but that can only spark discussion which is a good thing.
All in all The Barrel of a Gun is an incredible documentary that I would recommend to everyone. On a scale of 1 to 10 this movie is a solid 10.