Back in 1978, nine members of a black liberation revolutionary group in Philadelphia known as MOVE was raided by police, resulting in the death of a police officer.
All nine members were sentenced to maximum terms for their sentences, ranging between 30 and 100 years. Two of whom, a married couple, Debbie and Mike Africa, were among the convicted and also expecting a child. That child would later be born in prison and named Mike Africa Jr, who would spend the next 40 years researching and seeking justice for his parents.
That search would lead to a 40-year-long journey to free his mother Debbie, the first of MOVE 9 to be freed, and his father Mike thereafter in 2018. Mike Africa Jr’s journey to searching for truth and fighting for the release of his parents is chronicled with archival footage and eyewitness accounts in the upcoming HBO documentary, “40 Years A Prisoner,” which is set to debut on December 8, 2020. We caught up with Mike Africa Jr. and Director Tommy Oliver to discuss the moving documentary.
Ashlee Dell’Arciprete [The Knockturnal]: First of all, thank you Mike for sharing your heart-wrenching story. This documentary depicts racial tensions that very much still mirror from 1978 to today. Can you talk a little bit about the discourse of that from the MOVE group and how the similarities are still very clear to this day?
Mike Africa Jr: “Well the similarities are you know–Every generation we have a different organization coming up to protest against the system in a large way. I mean for every generation, we get multiple organizations of people that are putting out information to try and help with this situation. You’ve had the Black Panthers, you’ve had Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and so many others right. So, the organization known as MOVE is just a continuation of the people before us and a connection to the people coming after us, like Black Lives Matter and a lot of other groups–not much has changed.”
The Knockturnal: Tommy, what was it specifically about that day in 1978 about the MOVE Movement that made you want to work with Mike and produce this documentary? Was it a long process in the making and how did this all come together?
Tommy Oliver: “It was a three and a half year process. It wasn’t so much about that day as it was about Mike in his journey. His emotional journey and his actual journey to get his parents out, in order to understand why his parents needed to get out I had to understand why they were in. And then in understanding why they were in, I had to figure out all the constituent parts of what was happening in Philly, in the 70s, with MOVE, with Rizo, with police brutality and that just let me down the path of a giant amount of research to try to unpack what was going on because there was no definitive account of what happened in 1978 and it was also something that was a giant event, but people barely even remember it today. And so I just set me on this path of discovery.”
The Knockturnal: Finally, what messages do you hope this documentary captivates and brings forth for the audiences watching it?
Mike Africa Jr: “I hope people recognize that this was something that happened to my family, but a lot of other families are going through the same type of thing. Specifically, Mumia Gubinal, who was a journalist at the time and is a journalist today. He was speaking out and doing exactly what Tommy did and reporting what actually happened and as a result of that he was a target and he has been in prison himself for nearly 40 years. So, you know, I just want this film to wake people up and the people that are already awakened, I want those people to be energized by it and move forward so that we can make some justice and make some changes in this country.”
The Knockturnal: Great, well I think that that is all the time you guys have, so thank you so much for speaking with me. This was such an incredibly moving documentary. I loved the messaging behind it and I hope it gathers the attention it deserves. And congratulations to both of you on creating this and trying to bring positive change.
Tommy Oliver: “Thank you”
Mike Africa Jr: “Thank you”
“40 Years A Prisoner” is set to debut on HBO on Tuesday, December 8 at 9:00 PM EST