Tommy Oliver interview: ’40 Years a Prisoner’ documentary
“The things move fought against 40 years ago — police brutality, wrongful incarceration, systemic racism — were the same things we were fighting against when I started, and sadly the same things we’re fighting against today,” explains director Tommy Oliver about the modern echoes of his HBO documentary “40 Years a Prisoner,” which premiered December 8. It recounts how the Philadelphia justice system targeted a group of predominantly Black and brown activists in the 1970s. Oliver joined us for our “Meet the Experts” documentary panel to discuss the film. Watch our entire interview above.
The incident at the heart of the story is the 1978 police raid on a house that was the headquarters for the activist group MOVE. A police officer was killed during the raid, leading to the convictions of nine members of the organization. Oliver focuses on Mike Africa Jr., the son of two of the convicted activists who was actually “born in prison. He had literally never seen his parents outside of prison.” But he spent virtually his entire life trying to get them released.
“It’s hard to not root for somebody like Mike who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get his family home,” Oliver adds. But the filmmaker had “no idea how this thing was going to end.” They did manage to get their “fairy tale ending,” though, as Africa eventually secured the release of his parents with the help of a newly elected progressive district attorney.
Unfortunately, that’s not how most stories like this end, so Oliver put himself on the line to capture those historic moments. “I very nearly got arrested a number of times because Pennsylvania does not like nor allow cameras of any sort on prison grounds,” Oliver remembers. “So recording those even for a second was a really dangerous thing.” But it was crucial moment for the family, so it was worth it. “It was absolutely beautiful and emotional and a little bit scary.”
As the film illustrates, this kind of police aggression and prosecutorial overreach isn’t new, even though the 2020 murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the widespread protests they inspired make it seem like the phenomenon has escalated in recent years. “Police brutality isn’t getting worse, it’s getting recorded,” Oliver explains. “So much of what you saw in the film was the difference between what was portrayed versus what actually happened, and the chasm in-between … We are inclined to believe our elected officials, to believe cops,” so what makes 2020 different is that we’re able to watch the videotaped proof of police misconduct and believe our own eyes.