"It Is A Love Story": Son's Long Struggle To Free Incarcerated Parents Told In HBO's '40 Years A Prisoner'
Mike Africa Jr.'s mom and dad were convicted as part of Philadelphia's violent campaign against unorthodox MOVE group
American history can be read as one long effort to control or eradicate Black people. In the antebellum era they were exploited as free labor; in the post-Civil War period they have been subjected to mass incarceration, lynchings, spasms of white terror (Tulsa race massacre of 1921, Rosewood in 1923), and police killings (George Floyd, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, Tanisha Anderson, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, to name a few).
Another chapter in that ugly history came in 1985 when the city of Philadelphia deployed a helicopter to drop a bomb onto a home occupied by members of MOVE, a mostly African-American group of people who espoused unorthodox "back to nature" practices. The resulting fire killed 11 people, including five children.
But there was an earlier incident, also violent, involving MOVE in 1978, one that's the crux of the new documentary 40 Years a Prisoner. The film directed by Tommy Oliver premieres on HBO today and streams on HBO Max.
It is very hard to know what happened. It is a very complicated situation.
When the documentary begins we are introduced to a man in his late 30s, Mike Africa Jr., son of MOVE members Debbie Sims Africa and Mike Africa Sr. (members of the group followed the example of MOVE's founder, John Africa, taking Africa as their surname). Mike Jr., we learn, was born in prison in 1978 after both his parents were arrested following a violent confrontation at MOVE headquarters in August of that year.
Mike Jr. spent the first week of his life behind bars with his mother and was then taken from her arms. For 40 years he would only see his mother and father on occasion at the separate penitentiaries where they were held. As Mike grew into an adult, he never gave up hope of seeing his parents free.
"Here's a guy who has every reason to be bitter, who has every reason to be an unpleasant person, yet there's not a shred of bitterness about him," Oliver marvels. "He is just a positive guy who has an indomitable will."
40 Years a Prisoner draws on archival sources including old television news reports to investigate the incident that landed Debbie, Mike Sr., and seven other MOVE members in prison. To understand the circumstances requires an appreciation for the intense antagonism MOVE stirred among the city's white power structure, who, it can be argued, became obsessed with annihilating the group.
MOVE's sin, it might be said, was not respecting the norms of society. They wore their hair in dreadlocks -- rare for that era -- allowed their small children to go unclothed, believed in self-defense and met criticism from city officials with verbal defiance. Oliver says MOVE's very lifestyle offended city elders.
"How dare you do such a thing. How dare you eat raw foods, buy raw foods, raw vegetables," the director says of the ire stirred by MOVE. "How dare you compost. How dare you have your hair in dreadlocks. How dare you have a home birth."
For months the city under Mayor Frank Rizzo and the police force had waged a campaign against MOVE and its headquarters, at one point laying a siege intended to starve the occupants into submission. After that attempt ultimately failed, heavily-armed police surrounded the headquarters in early August, readying to storm the building. Firefighters flooded the basement with water cannon and then a ferocious gun battle broke out. One police officer wound up dead, with a gunshot to the back of the neck.
A total of nine MOVE members -- Mike Jr.'s parents among them -- were charged with third degree murder. They were convicted and sentenced to 30-90 years each despite the strong possibility the officer had been killed by "friendly fire." Furthermore, crucial evidence was bulldozed when Mayor Rizzo ordered the immediate razing of the MOVE building, which was torn down within hours of the shootout. What's more, although MOVE members had been armed, a previous police investigation had found the weapons were not functional.
"It is very hard to know what happened. It is a very complicated situation," Oliver tells Nonfictionfilm.com about the fatal shootout. "What I don't think happened at all is that there was beyond reasonable doubt. I think there are a hundred instances that kind of have contributed reasonable doubt."
Oliver concludes about the trial, "Guess what? That is the system working specifically and exactly as it was designed, to punish you."
Oliver interviewed journalists who covered the shootout and police officers who were on the scene that fateful day.
"A big part of what I endeavored to do," Oliver notes, "and I made very clear that I wanted to tell an honest, unbiased story. I wanted to include all sides of what happened accurately and completely."
Apparently put at ease by Oliver (he was a crew of one -- handling the camera and audio, and asking the questions), the officers revealed great contempt for MOVE and repugnance for their manner of living. Damningly, they also papered over a clear case of police brutality from that day when police brutally beat MOVE member Delbert Africa, almost costing him his life.
"I think in their case, it was just sort of trading war stories where they [the officers] felt as though we had nothing to hide," Oliver observes. "It's the same sort of story they've probably told a dozen times over forever how long they've been telling these stories. It was just them talking."
Oliver also interviewed former Governor Ed Rendell, who as Philadelphia's district attorney in 1978 prosecuted officers accused of beating Delbert Africa. That trial ended with the accused getting off scot free..
"The judge... unilaterally, despite it being a jury case, decided to find the Philly cops not guilty, despite unambiguous evidence," states Oliver. "Guess what? As a judge it's his prerogative. That was within what is legal and there was no recourse."
The film recounts how Mike Jr., raising his own family, continued to search for ways to win his parents' release. The best opportunity was for them to earn parole, a decision that lay with parole boards that repeatedly denied the request. A helpful development came with the election of Lawrence Krasner as Philadelphia D.A. in 2017, who ran on criminal justice reform.
With support from Krasner's office, first Mike's mother was freed on parole, in 2018, and then his father in 2019. The documentary shows scenes of the family being reunited, and Debbie and Mike Africa Sr. resuming their lives together, their relationship remarkably seeming as strong as ever although they had been kept apart for 40 years.
I told Oliver, a Philly native, that to me the film is really a love story.
"That's how I've been describing this. It's very much a love story. It is, as you said, a son's love," he says, adding, "It is [also] romantic love. Two people who have been apart for years yet they still love each other madly. It's also a love letter to Philly. This one's is probably a bit counterintuitive. I love my city, but my city needs to do better. Part of that is the willingness to hold up a mirror and look at it and have those tough conversations. Because if you don't, you don't get past them. You don't get better. You are spot on when you say that it is a love story or a love letter because that's what it is."
Mike Africa Jr. with Mike Sr., on the day of his father's release from prison. Photos from MikeAfricaJr.com
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.