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Originally published February 21, 2013 at 3:15 PM | Page modified February 21, 2013 at 3:14 PM

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‘Mumia Abu-Jamal’: a portrait of the imprisoned activist

A movie review of “Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal,” Stephen Vittoria’s fascinating, unbalanced portrait of the black activist/journalist who was convicted of a 1981 Philadelphia cop killing and endured years on death row.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review 3 stars

“Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal,” a documentary written and directed by Stephen Vittoria. 120 minutes. Not rated; contains rough language. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.

Q&As with producer Noelle Hanrahan will be held at the evening shows Friday and Saturday.

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No one is likely to mistake the fascinating documentary “Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal” for a balanced assessment of the incarceration of the black activist/journalist, who was convicted of a 1981 Philadelphia cop killing and endured death row for years.

Written and directed by Stephen Vittoria (who made “One Bright Shining Moment,” about presidential candidate George McGovern), the movie begins rather bravely with a montage of right-wing pundits who object to Abu-Jamal being described as a “political prisoner” and want to see him executed.

But it quickly takes a detour from the haters to the fans, lining up such famous backers as Alice Walker, Cornel West, Angela Davis and Peter Coyote — some of whom read excerpts from Abu-Jamal’s thoughtful commentaries to prove that he couldn’t be a killer.

“Mumia” gradually becomes a persuasive attempt to celebrate the content of his character, not the violence that apparently led to his imprisonment. Indicting the “police state” created by Philadelphia’s leaders during the late 1970s/early 1980s, Vittoria creates a context that suggests how easily innocents could be railroaded.

The movie later expands to make a larger accusation, linking the atrocities of Vietnam with the recent conflict in Afghanistan — and frankly mocking the Nobel Peace Prize given to President Obama. The result is not unlike Oliver Stone’s rewrite of U.S. history for his documentary series on cable television’s Showtime.

Still, Vittoria avoids dealing with the circumstances of the killing that landed Abu-Jamal in jail. While he includes a strategically placed appearance by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose similar situation inspired a Bob Dylan song and a Denzel Washington movie, it’s so brief that it does little but pose more questions.

John Hartl:

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