First the facts. Mumia Abu-Jamal has been serving a death sentence and now a life sentence for the murder of Philadelphia patrolman Daniel Faulkner in 1981. On that cold December night, both men were shot. Abu-Jamal was also ruthlessly beaten by Philadelphia’s finest and barely survived.
Over the past forty-plus years, Abu-Jamal has steadfastly declared his innocence. Amnesty International has pleaded for a new trial. Numerous criminal experts have concluded that the former Black Panther’s guilt was manufactured by the historically racist Philadelphia Police Department in concert with the city’s District Attorney.
In 2012, I wrote, directed, and produced the documentary film Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary. This narrative did not deal with Abu-Jamal’s legal battle but rather his life as a journalist before and after incarceration. From prison, Abu-Jamal has authored fourteen books and more than 3,000 commentaries for Prison Radio. His story is a remarkable journey of spirit and courage.
In March of 2013, First Run Features booked the film in Newark’s only movie theater, the CityPlex12—a significant cornerstone in the Central Ward’s revitalization program. When the cinema opened in 2012, then-mayor Cory Booker beamed when he declared, “CityPlex12 is the best place to watch a movie in New Jersey.” Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I was born in Newark and am proud to share the film with the people and the city so instrumental in my political education.
The film had already opened in numerous cities around the country, including holdover engagements in New York and Los Angeles, and garnered strong reviews including The New York Times, also qualifying for Academy Award consideration. Box office receipts and the film’s associated hype were going well; if not, CityPlex12 would never have booked the film.
The theater’s marketing manager worked hard with First Run Features to promote and attract large audiences. Together, both entities were following our well-oiled grassroots campaign that proved vastly successful in other cities. We were ready. Newark… here we come.
And then Shaquille O’Neal rode into town. Also a native of Newark, the ex-NBA superstar and co-owner of CityPlex12 summarily pulled the plug and canceled the film’s engagement.
No reason was given to the distributor or the filmmakers. CityPlex12 declined to comment to journalist Linn Washington, except to say that it was theater policy “to screen only Hollywood-produced films.” A ludicrous statement, not to mention grossly untrue.
Films are produced and distributed by studios and companies from all over the world. Like any other theater, CityPlex12 books films from New York to London to New Zealand, making their reason for pulling the film as flimsy as the toy police badges Shaq pins on his chest.
You see, Shaq grew up around two uncles who were Newark cops and has always embraced the dream of someday being a full-fledged cop himself. He’s been deputized as a reserve policeman or auxiliary cop for many jurisdictions around the country. It must make for great PR.
Shaquille O’Neal decided you shouldn’t see this film
When the cancellation news hit, a major protest was organized by area community groups, including Lawrence Hamm and the People’s Organization for Progress. On April 26, 2013, a throng of more than two hundred peacefully protesting citizens (myself included) surrounded the theater, quickly followed by a squadron of Newark motorcycle cops ready for action. But we came prepared with a constitutional attorney who cited chapter and verse about the theater being a public square and they couldn’t infringe on our right to assemble.
One of the many speakers that day was renowned poet Amiri Baraka, who called the cancellation “shameful.” Hamm, who also questioned theater management, concluded, “This is not about money. It’s about cultural imperialism, others deciding what we will see.” Newark’s own Todd Steven Burroughs, a former Star-Ledger reporter, told me, “The Newark I’ve known has always been a bastion of free expression. I couldn’t even comprehend the idea that a film about a Black Power veteran such as Abu-Jamal could be turned down in a Newark venue.”
The Long March For Justice | WBGO
Since CityPlex12 never offered a public explanation for the sudden cancellation, those involved and affected were left to conclude that Shaq would be damned if his theater would screen a film about “a cop killer.” And there it was: Shaq had jumped on the censorship bandwagon—a long-standing and corrupt practice used by many against Abu-Jamal since December of 1981.
CityPlex12, a community hub, effectively blocked Newark citizens from seeing the film and experiencing Abu-Jamal’s powerful voice. Shaq never had the guts to speak his truth. CityPlex12 also fired the marketing manager who worked hard to ensure the film’s success.
Shaquille O’Neal decided you shouldn’t see this film
In a conversation with Vittoria, Abu-Jamal referenced his hero Paul Robeson who also fought against nefarious forces attempting to silence his truth. “What they fear most is us reaching people,” Abu-Jamal said, “telling them a story about a life of resistance to the Empire.” Abu-Jamal called it “the politics of quietude.”
During the controversy, I spoke with Abu-Jamal on camera. In a rousing conversation, he talked about another New Jersey native, a hero to Abu-Jamal—Paul Robeson, who also fought against nefarious forces attempting to silence his truth. “What they fear most is us reaching people,” Abu-Jamal said, “telling them a story about a life of resistance to the Empire.” Abu-Jamal called it “the politics of quietude,” going on to say, “They don’t want the natives to be restless.”
Ten years later, the wound remains open. Shaq’s actions against the people of Newark were a despicable act of de facto censorship. At the CityPlex12 demonstration, I heard a chorus of Newark residents lashing out at O’Neal’s actions, also suggesting that he consistently opposed issues that the Black community fought hard against police brutality and mass incarceration.
Shaquille O’Neal has no problem being a TV pitchman for a seemingly endless list of products. The only two items not on that list? The residents of Newark and freedom of expression.
Stephen Vittoria is an author, filmmaker, and native of Newark. He wrote, directed, and produced the documentary Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary.