When Philly Cops Killed a Baby and Opened Fire on a Black Liberation Group
The new HBO documentary “40 Years a Prisoner” revisits the events that led up to the infamous 1978 shootout between Philadelphia police and the Black revolutionary group MOVE.
Social justice documentaries have a tendency to proceed from such a set-in-stone perspective that they wind up discounting any complicating forces at play in their stories. Not so with 40 Years a Prisoner, Tommy Oliver’s sharply realized film about the conflict between Philadelphia police and the Black liberation MOVE organization that came to a head in 1978 with a shootout that left one officer dead and resulted in the conviction of nine MOVE members for homicide in the third degree. Offering a 360-degree portrait of that tragedy, Oliver’s endeavor (premiering Dec. 8 on HBO) has a distinct opinion about the conflagration and the wrongs that followed, and its point of view is bolstered by its willingness to candidly confront every aspect of its tale.
Produced by John Legend as well as Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson—whose band, The Roots, supplies its theme song—40 Years a Prisoner is guided by the present-day experiences of Mike Africa Jr., whose parents Mike Africa and Debbie Sims were two of the nine people held criminally responsible (to the tune of 30-100 years behind bars) for the death of Philly PD officer James J. Ramp during an Aug. 8, 1978, firefight between the cops and MOVE at the latter’s Powelton Village house. That clash was the culmination of mounting tensions between the two factions, which had really taken off a couple of months prior, when hardline Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo had decided that he’d had enough of MOVE—who he claimed posed a public health hazard, were stockpiling guns, and making threats—and literally barricaded them into their home via roadblocks designed to cut off their food and water supplies. MOVE naturally saw this starvation tactic as an attack, and negotiated to vacate the premises and surrender their weapons only if the city released their imprisoned members, which it eventually did.
MOVE regarded Rizzo and the city’s police department (led by Commissioner Joseph O’Neill) as violent racists, and Rizzo and the cops considered MOVE a revolutionary outfit looking to start trouble. 40 Years a Prisoner suggests that, to varying degrees, both were true. In TV clips, Rizzo speaks about MOVE in the most inflammatory and antagonistic manner possible, and footage of MOVE member Delbert Africa being horrifically kicked by a trio of cops during the 1978 skirmish—a scene that foreshadows the 1991 beating of Rodney King—underscores their brutal attitudes toward African Americans, which is then reinforced by the threesome’s later lack of remorse about their conduct. MOVE, meanwhile, is depicted as a group dedicated to an extremist pro-nature, anti-technology ideology (fostered by founder John Africa, whose surname was adopted by all members) that compelled them to live in unclothed, ramshackle squalor, and their failure to afford their members (including children) basic services was decried by many in the area. As reporter Kitty Caparella contends, MOVE was comprised of “kids adrift who were in a cult, and John Africa was the cult leader.”
An earlier police raid on the MOVE residence that left Janine Africa’s baby dead of a head injury was the initial fuse that set this powder keg off; cops became more openly hostile, and MOVE boarded up its house and transformed its front porch into a platform from which it could preach violent retaliation. A catastrophe was all but destined to erupt. Regarding this state of affairs, MOVE lawyer Joel Todd opines, “I don’t think every problem can be solved. I think there are some problems that are intractable,” and 40 Years a Prisoner persuasively implies that this may have been one of them. Employing a treasure trove of archival news and on-the-scene footage, it exposes the horrifying nature of the ultimate skirmish, in which cops flooded the MOVE house’s basement with a fire hose, filled it with tear gas, and began shooting with machine guns. In the ensuing crossfire, Ramp was fatally struck.
Aided by new interviews with players on both sides of this battle (including two former Philadelphia mayors), Oliver’s documentary details this disaster as well as the cops’ subsequent denials that their methods were excessive, MOVE members’ outrage, and the trials of both Delbert’s assailants and the MOVE 9 blamed for Ramp’s death. The former court case was thrown out by a judge before it could even reach a jury (a scenario that then-district attorney and future Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell says he’s never seen before or since), while the latter concluded with onerous convictions for the accused, whose unruly courtroom behavior did their defenses no favors. 40 Years a Prisoner situates itself in the messy stew of competing POVs and attitudes that dominated this fraught moment in time, refusing to shy away from the more unpleasant elements of MOVE while simultaneously recognizing that, no matter that group’s distastefulness, it was still the victim of a racist police department (and power structure, guided by Rizzo) whose actions were reprehensibly over the line.
40 Years a Prisoner understands that more than one thing can be true about a given story, and knows how to differentiate between them. That makes it the rare non-fiction effort to see both the forest and the trees, as Oliver strengthens his overarching case about the MOVE 9’s unjust prosecution by painting a full-disclosure picture of the entire saga. Moreover, he complements that narrative by giving voice to Mike Africa Jr.’s own ordeal growing up with two incarcerated parents, and his lifelong efforts to forge a relationship with them as well as find new evidence that might lead to their exoneration.
Its title a riff on Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning 2013 film (and the 1853 Solomon Northup memoir upon which it was based)—an association that likens its tale to that of modern-day slavery—40 Years a Prisoner ends on a happy, if also invariably bittersweet, note, and it’s only in its closing passages that director Oliver pulls a bit too hard on the heartstrings. For the most part, though, his documentary is a clear-eyed account of a catastrophic episode in America’s racial-conflict history, and the lasting scars it left on those at its center.