Before the bombing: How MOVE became one of Philly’s greatest tragedies

Tommy Oliver’s documentary shows the radical commune’s early years, tracing escalating tension with the city that led up to the tragic 1985 police bombing.

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In the new MOVE documentary, '40 Years a Prisoner,' Mike Africa, Jr., visits the prison cell where he was born. (Screenshot from 40 Years a Prisoner)

In the new MOVE documentary, '40 Years a Prisoner,' Mike Africa, Jr., visits the prison cell where he was born. (Screenshot from 40 Years a Prisoner)

Can you talk about MOVE without talking about the bombing?

On Monday, the Philadelphia Film Festival will screen “40 Years a Prisoner,” a new documentary about MOVE, the group started in the 1970s advocating an alternative, back-to-nature lifestyle and political radicalism.

The film traces the increasing tension between MOVE and the City of Philadelphia, at the time run by Mayor Frank Rizzo.

What might be most unusual about the documentary is that it never once mentions the famous 1985 incident in which Philadelphia police firebombed the MOVE house in West Philadelphia,  incinerating 65 houses and killing 11 people, including five children.

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Instead, the film keeps its focus on an event that preceded the 1985 bombing by seven years: a shootout in Powelton Village in 1978 that left one police officer dead.

“In Philly, most of us are aware of MOVE. For the most part, it’s limited to what happened in ’85,” said filmmaker Tommy Oliver. “Almost nobody remembers what happened in 1978. It’s rarely understood, or that what happened in ’85 is a result of ’78.”

Oliver, known for co-creating the “Black Love” documentary series on the Oprah Network, dug deeply into film archives to uncover footage that tells the story of escalating tensions between MOVE and the city that predated the 1978 shootout, when police harassed and beat members as they brought newly released prisoners into their home in Powelton Village. MOVE members retaliated by barricading their house and using a megaphone to broadcast statements about racist city police, statements heavily laced with profanity.

Based on nuisance complaints, Rizzo obtained a court order to force MOVE to vacate the property, which led to a yearlong standoff. The city cut off water and electricity to the house and barricaded the entire block, so deliveries of food could not reach MOVE. The group stood its ground. Hostilities built to a deadly climax.

Oliver, who grew up in Philadelphia’s West Oak Lane neighborhood, knew the story of  MOVE but did not live through it; he was just a year old when the 1985 bombing happened. Because the bombing dominates the story of MOVE, Oliver said he never understood what led up to it.

He dived deeply into research. With archival producer Keith Gionet, Oliver is able to tell the story almost entirely with film footage from the 1970s.

In the new MOVE documentary, ’40 Years a Prisoner,’ Mike Africa, Jr., visits the prison cell where he was born. (Screenshot from 40 Years a Prisoner)

“We went through every archival house we could find. We went through all 72 boxes at the Temple Urban Archive, looking through every page of logs,” said Oliver. “We found footage had been shot by a college student at the time, Karen Pomer. She had 31 half-inch tapes that had been sitting in a closet for 40 years. They were in a pretty bad state. We managed to transfer those that hadn’t seen the light of day since 1978.”

Oliver also uses footage from a documentary MOVE made about itself in 1977, “Visions of a New Day,” featuring interviews with members filmed inside the group’s home.

Interspersed with the archival footage is new footage of Mike Africa Jr., the son of Debbie and Mike Africa Sr., who were imprisoned immediately after the 1978 shootout. They were among the nine MOVE members convicted of killing Officer James Ramp. To this day, they maintain their innocence, saying the trial was flawed.

Mike Africa Jr. was Oliver’s entry into MOVE, providing access and smoothing relations with remaining members in order to shoot interviews.

Africa also provides the emotional backbone of the film. He was born in a jail cell in Philadelphia a month after Debbie Africa was imprisoned. He never saw his mother outside prison until she was released in 2018, when he was 39. His father was released a few months later, when Mike was 40. He had spent all his adult life fighting for justice for his parents.

“What do you think the title is referring to?” asked Oliver. “While it makes sense that ‘40 Years a Prisoner’ is about his parents, it’s actually about Mike Jr.”

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The MOVE story is as divisive today as it was 40 years ago, with neighbors remembering the havoc the group caused, activists decrying the abusive treatment by police and questioning the validity of the trial, and police recalling the hostilities directed toward them.

Oliver stepped into the minefield with the intention of telling a balanced story, featuring interviews with MOVE members, police, defense attorneys and prosecutors, and journalists who covered the escalating situation.

“A big part was trying to understand what happened and why,” said Oliver. “Context matters so much. That’s what took so much time to unpack. There were a lot of stakeholders, a lot of people, a lot of tension. It wasn’t just a shootout for the sake of a shootout.”

It’s no accident that the conflict between the mostly Black MOVE members and an overzealous police department — which literally flushed them out of their house by using fire hoses to fill their basement with water — resonates with this year’s street protests for racial justice.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” said Oliver. “This situation is for the most part forgotten. When you forget what happened, you are likely to repeat it. That’s what’s been happening.”

“40 Years a Prisoner” has been making the rounds at film festivals, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic those festival screenings have all been on digital streaming platforms. The Monday evening screening, as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, will be as a drive-in projection at the Navy Yard, the first time the film will be seen by a live audience.

The documentary will premiere on HBO in December.

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