The City of Philadelphia’s long and bloody conflict with the MOVE organization, a “radical” back-to-nature group that followed the teachings of John Africa, forms the backdrop to the HBO documentary 40 Years a Prisoner.
In 1978, the Philadelphia Police Department stormed the MOVE compound with armored vehicles, bulldozers and 600 officers, triggering a gun battle that left one policeman dead. Nine MOVE members, including Mike Africa and his wife, Debbie Africa, who was eight months pregnant at the time, were arrested. A few weeks after her arrest Debbie gave birth, behind bars, to a boy the couple named Mike Africa Jr.
The documentary, directed by Tommy Oliver, follows Mike Jr on a lifelong journey to win his parents’ freedom and see his family reunited. Mike Jr. never gave up on seeing his mother and father released.
“Unless they were home there was no reason to give up, there was no need to give up,” Mike Jr explained during Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted panel on the film. “You don’t give up just because time passed. You’re done when the job is done. I never even questioned should I give up or not. It never entered my mind.”
In a case that reeked of bias, the nine MOVE members, including Mike’s parents, were sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison, though there was evidence to suggest the slain officer was hit by friendly fire. Other potential exonerating evidence was destroyed when the city, acting on the mayor’s orders, tore down the MOVE compound within hours of the gunfight. If MOVE had committed a crime, arguably it was in living an unorthodox lifestyle and refusing to bend to white authority.
“I definitely felt like [my parents] were political prisoners because they didn’t go to prison for something that was really related to the crime that they were accused of,” Africa noted. “The judge, when he sentenced them, he said, ‘I’m sentencing you as a family, not for the crime.’”
Oliver, a Philadelphia native, said the story touched him because of his own family circumstances.
“Growing up as a kid in Philly, I didn’t know my dad, my mother was on drugs, I just remembered wanting my family. I think that’s all I ever wanted,” he said. “And, for me, to see Mike, who had literally never seen his parents in person outside prison, had never seen them together, ever, he was just the kid who had grown into a man who just wanted his family home…I just wanted to be around Mike as he was trying his best, despite insane odds, to bring his family home.”
Executive producer Mike Jackson, who co-founded production company Get Lifted Film Co. with John Legend and Ty Stiklorius, also grew up in the Philadelphia area.
“For us at Get Lifted, it just felt like the type of film that we wanted to be involved with because it was talking about the marginalized and talking up about how to uplift and it was talking about love and it was talking about family,” Jackson said. “And all of those things resonated to me as a producer, but it resonated even more because it was a story from my hometown and it just felt personal.”
Africa says his parents, who finally earned parole after being denied it seven times previously, are enjoying a life of freedom.
“They came home and like they hit the ground running, literally,” Africa shared. “My mom is so joyous and her laughter is like this deep, belly laugh that it radiates throughout the space that she’s in. My dad is right behind her, right beside her, enjoying the ride. It’s really powerful to see them…They have their ups and downs and their good and bad days, but for the most part it’s just been like heavenly, heavenly.”
Check out the panel video above.