In Prison My Whole Life

In Prison My Whole Life


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

You would think that just coming up with good subject matter for a documentary would ensure that the end product would merit at least an average rating. And yet, increasingly, it seems that style is used as a substitute for content as directors become ever more obsessed with the look of the thing to the detriment of telling the story.

Such is, unfortunately, the case with Marc Evans’ latest documentary, which is produced by no lesser luminaries than Livia Guiggioli and her husband – that’s Colin Firth to those not in the know – and which, therefore, saw Firth brought out as a big gun at Sundance Film Festival, recently, to help push the film. Like many of us, he is firmly against the death penalty, which he describes as an "utter obscenity in every conceivable case", it is just a shame this film never matches his eloquence or passion on the subject.

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Before going any further I should say that I am not in any way doubting the filmmakers’ commitment to the issue at hand, the death penalty – particularly that of writer William Francome, on whose idea the whole thing is predicated – nor am I saying that the issue does not deserve to be raised, but this documentary is more of a failure than a success.

Francome was born on December 9, 1981, which is, coincidentally, the very same day that journalist/political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal (born Wesley Cook) was arrested for the murder of policeman Daniel Faulkner. The prosecution at his trial contested that Abu-Jamal – who at the time was driving a taxi to make extra cash – saw Faulkner beating up his brother and stepped in to help. Help, they say, which resulted in Abu-Jamal shooting Faulkner in the back, then straddling his fallen body and pumping a further four shots into him. Twenty-five years on and Abu-Jamal is still languishing on Death Row in Pennsylvania, despite a wealth of evidence indicating that he deserves, at the very least, a fresh trial, thanks to an almost certainly racist judge and possible police coercion of witnesses.

Francome makes a personal journey of investigation to try to establish what led to Abu-Jamal’s conviction and, along the way, examines issues of endemic racism within the US prison system, particularly when it comes to Death Row prisoners.

The problem with this is that, on the one hand, he opens up the issue too much – frequently straying away from the case of Abu-Jamal so far to take in other issues of racial injustice and suppression – from slavery through to Hurricane Katrina - that you fear he will never be able to get back – and yet, on the other hand, his focus is too personal and editorialised to let the audience form a rounded opinion.

There is a sense of cherry picking and a lack of background to round out the story. While some of the testimony, from the likes of Steve Earle and Mos Def is powerful, many of the parallels Francome and Evans attempt to draw feel slightly spurious and their conclusions lack sufficient back up. Also there is a sense of Francome frequently ‘leading the witnesses’, a shame since what they have to say is important.

Much of the footage here will not be new to older American audiences, either, since huge chunks are culled from the 1996 documentary Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt?, although in fairness to Evans and Francome, some new evidence is presented.

However, the audience then has to deal with a large number of directorial problems. Evans’ output is patchy, swinging from the sublime, as evidenced by his audacious thriller My Little Eye – where his use camera techniques was key to the action - to the ridiculous Trauma, which was so concerned with style that the plot jumped of a cliff in the first half hour. Here again, his direction gets in the way of the documentary, rather than helping things along.

Almost to make up for the slow pace of Francome’s narration - which sees the tale of Abu-Jamal unfold inexorably slowly - the camera is frenetic. Words spin on the screen, plates stating the most obvious of facts are inserted between some scenes as though the audience has the attention span of a gnat, and all the time talking heads are onscreen the camera dips and yaws unnecessarily. By treating the audience as though they are either dumb beyond belief or suffering from attention deficit disorder, they do a disservice to both them and Abu-Jamal, whose case deserves much better handling.

Reviewed on: 13 Feb 2008
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Documentary about questions that hang over the conviction of Death Row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Director: Marc Evans

Writer: Marc Evans, William Francome

Starring: William Francome, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Boots, Noam Chomsky, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Steve Earle, William Francome, Russell Simmons, Alice Walker, Howard Zinn,

Year: 2007

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK, US

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