Tommy Oliver On His Documentary About 1978 MOVE Standoff In Philadelphia
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
When the documentary filmmaker Tommy Oliver was a kid growing up in Philadelphia, he didn't hear much about the organization called MOVE.
TOMMY OLIVER: I didn't know who they were or what they went through or what happened to them. They were this outside, counterculture group which people didn't know how to respond to.
SHAPIRO: It was a back-to-the-land movement founded by a man named John Africa.
OLIVER: They lived in two houses that they took over. They built a parapet around it. They had a big compost pile in the back. They had a lot of dogs and other animals. And they just sort of lived their life as best they could in the middle of West Philadelphia.
SHAPIRO: What Oliver did here as a kid mostly centered around a bomb that police dropped from a helicopter on the MOVE residents in 1985. It killed nearly a dozen people and started a fire that decimated a neighborhood.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A state police helicopter dropped a bomb on the house to open a hole through which police could throw tear gas.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: By the time the fire was arrested, some 60 houses had been ravaged.
SHAPIRO: As an adult, Tommy Oliver met a man named Mike Africa Jr. His parents had been sentenced to life in prison over an earlier confrontation between MOVE and the Philadelphia police. On August 8, 1978, police staged a siege on the MOVE house. A police officer named James Ramp was killed by a single bullet, and nine MOVE members were convicted of murder, including Mike Africa Jr.'s parents.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "40 YEARS A PRISONER")
MIKE AFRICA: I'm a guy who's saying, do whatever it takes. Do all that it takes because those people that are in prison are dying in there.
SHAPIRO: Tommy Oliver's new film on HBO, "40 Years A Prisoner," tells the story of that siege in 1978 and Mike Africa Jr.'s quest to free his parents.
OLIVER: You got to think about how they were portrayed in the '70s. They were dehumanized. And when you dehumanize a people, it becomes really easy to justify whatever happens to them. And so, of course, whatever happened to them was their fault.
SHAPIRO: So growing up with this story of people who were dehumanized, what was the turning point for you in looking at it in a different way?
OLIVER: I went down a pretty deep rabbit hole of research, and I read everything I could. I went to the Temple Urban Archive, where there are 72 boxes of content. And...
SHAPIRO: Wait. I'm sorry. You went through 72 boxes of content?
OLIVER: Along with my archival producer, Keith Gionet.
OLIVER: We went through everything and digitized 10,000-plus pages of court transcripts because we realized that there was no definitive, accurate account of what happened in '78.
SHAPIRO: And what made you think that this was a story that needed to be told that was worth that level of research and digging?
OLIVER: Mike Africa Jr. is the answer.
SHAPIRO: All right. He is the main character, the person through whom you tell this story. Who is Mike Africa Jr.?
OLIVER: Mike Africa Jr. is the son of two of the MOVE members who were imprisoned as a result of what happened on August 8. His mom was pregnant, and he was literally born in prison. And meeting him, it changed everything because I didn't know he was born in prison. I didn't realize that all of the MOVE nine - or those who were still alive because two of them have since died in prison - were still in prison. And to meet this guy who really just wanted his parents home - and he had committed his entire life to getting them out.
SHAPIRO: His parents, who, as you say, had been dehumanized for you as a kid - suddenly they're these three-dimensional people, and you're talking to their son.
OLIVER: Correct. And so at that point, I just wanted to sort of be around for his journey, for his quest to figure out how to get his parents home. And what I realized was that I also needed to understand why they were in prison in the first place.
SHAPIRO: And yet people coming into this looking for definitive answers about who pulled the trigger that killed the police officer that led these nine MOVE members to be sentenced to life in prison for murder - we don't get the definitive answer.
OLIVER: We don't. And what's interesting about that is we went through everything. We went through all of the evidence that was around. We went through all of the transcripts. We went through everything. Yet we all know what the bar is to convict someone. It is beyond reasonable doubt. You had a house that was razed, a house that was literally destroyed hours after this event took place. You had...
SHAPIRO: So there was this police standoff during which one officer was killed. And then the scene of the crime was demolished, torn to the ground.
OLIVER: Demolished under the order of Mayor Rizzo, who was formerly Police Commissioner Rizzo. And there were so many other things, yet these nine people were convicted. But as you say, we don't know definitively. I don't know, and there was no way to state conclusively what happened. But even with that, even if - let's say one of them did do it. The nine people were convicted and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison. That's insane, right? That's crazy, right? No. That is our system functioning exactly and specifically as it was designed.
SHAPIRO: You interview a lot of police officers in the present day who were involved in the 1978 siege, and they speak with such cavalier nonchalance about the police violence and brutality, specifically about a man named Delbert Africa who was beaten senseless as he came out of the MOVE house during the siege. One officer says, he went to the hospital. He should have gone to the morgue. When you were doing these interviews and heard people express these attitudes all these decades later, what did you think?
OLIVER: It was hard. It was really hard. The trial after Delbert Africa's beating, which was clear as day - that was recorded on film. There were photos. There were witnesses. Yet the three officers were let off. And when those officers were interviewed on camera, all three of them doubled down and said they would do the exact same thing again, which was beat this man almost to death. And I don't know how to reconcile those things. I don't because it's just - I want to believe that people are good, and I want to believe that they are doing things for the right reason. But for somebody to not just to double down but to double down publicly, it's a hard thing to understand.
SHAPIRO: Are you still in touch with Michael Africa Jr.?
OLIVER: I am. He's become a dear friend.
SHAPIRO: I mean, what's this like for him to now, like, you know, live with his parents?
OLIVER: It has been a lovely thing. And "40 Years A Prisoner" actually refers to Mike, not his parents, because so much of his existence was wrapped up in trying to bring them home. And his dad makes this point beautifully at the end that us being home, as in him and his wife, freed him, freed Mike Africa Jr. from the burden of trying to get them out.
And so he's like a kid in a candy store now because he had only ever seen them in prison, and he had never seen them together his entire life. And so for them to live with him, to spend time with their four grandkids, it's just been a dream. And one thing that was hard for him, though - they eventually moved out, and he said it was almost like they're his kids leaving the nest. And - but it was fun. He was very happy for them.
SHAPIRO: Tommy Oliver is the director of the new HBO documentary "40 Years A Prisoner." Thank you for talking with us about it.
OLIVER: Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF THIRD COAST PERCUSSION'S "FOR ALL ITS FURY I: REACH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.