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Tommy Oliver’s ’40 Years a Prisoner’ is a Story of Love, Family and Resilience
by Lawrence C. Ross
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September 16, 2020

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Tommy Oliver’s ’40 Years a Prisoner’ is a Story of Love, Family and Resilience

Tommy Oliver's HBO documentary "40 Years a Prisoner"
Tommy Oliver’s HBO documentary “40 Years a Prisoner”

Tommy Oliver, the co-creator of the Black Love docuseries and co-founder of BlackLove.com, premiered a four-year labor of love this week at the Toronto Film Festival with his documentary 40 Years a Prisoner. Author, journalist, and historian Lawrence R. Ross watched the film Oliver shot, directed, and produced and shared his take on the significance of the film exclusively for BlackLove.com. 

America demands that you love it, even when it doesn’t love you back. Or perhaps I should say, to be more accurate, doesn’t love you Black. It wants you to proclaim unconditional love of country, to the point of dying for it in war, while always treating you as an eternal outsider. 

You’re to love the flag unapologetically, even when it waves proudly over injustice that never says it’s sorry. And of course, you must love the Constitution, the guardian of freedom and democracy, despite the fact that you as a Black person need special addendums, all because the Bill of Rights aren’t enough to protect you. 

America’s love is hypocritical. 

But we know that, and this story isn’t about America and its hypocritical love. It’s about a Black love. A complete Black love. The Black love of a Black son, Mike Africa, Jr., for his Black parents. A Black son born into that American hypocrisy, but who over the next forty years of his life, refused to allow his love for his parents to wane. In fact, as the years grew longer, his love grew stronger. That’s what filmmaker Tommy Oliver’s upcoming HBO documentary, 40 Years a Prisoner, so expertly details. That in the midst of a white supremacist society, one can still provide a light filled with hope and enduring love. 

Mike Africa, Jr.’s forty year journey to free his parents challenged America’s love of its ideals.

The story of MOVE is the story of a time and place. The time? The mid to late 1970s. The place? Philadelphia. The counter-culture sixties were over, and the seventies had laid bare corruption at the presidential level via Watergate. Still, America’s attacks on Black folks continued. COINTELPRO, the FBI’s secret counter-intelligence program, successfully disrupted the Black Panthers, killing, imprisoning, and exiled their leadership. Other Black groups simply faded away. But MOVE proved that the Black liberation movement wasn’t dead. 

Led by John Africa, MOVE was a Black liberation movement that believed in an anarcho-primitivism living, that if you understand American communes and utopias, isn’t that unusual. Starting with the beliefs of Henry David Thoreau, communal groups have often behaved like MOVE. MOVE wanted to live off the land, protect animals, believe what they wanted to believe, and generally just be left alone. 

MOVE members (Photo credit: billypenn.com)
MOVE members (Photo credit: billypenn.com)

With their dreadlocks, and their belief that the Second Amendment allowed them to carry weapons like any other citizen, MOVE believed that this form of Black power would allow them to extract themselves from the white supremacist America, and the overtly racist Philadelphia power structure as represented by Mayor Frank Rizzo and the Philadelphia police. 

They were mistaken. 

After months of harassment by the police, the city government, the death of a newborn baby at the hands of the Philadelphia police, a 1978 confrontation that would leave one police officer dead. Nine MOVE members were convicted for that death, including husband and wife Mike, Sr. and Debbie Africa. Each was given 30 years to life sentences. Eight years later, eleven MOVE members, including founder John Africa, were killed when a Philadelphia police helicopter dropped a bomb on another MOVE complex

Love without hope is empty, so he made it his mission to create that hope, both for them and for himself.

But as America forgot about MOVE, Mike Africa, Jr. made sure to never forget about his parents. Born to Debbie Africa in a prison cell while she was serving her life sentence, Mike Africa, Jr. had to create familial Black love that didn’t rely upon the day to day contact that other families have. Mundane things that we take for granted, like touch and feel, were initially restricted due to the plexiglass barriers between the free and incarcerated. And yet, Mike Africa, Jr. allowed himself to dream, and to transmit those dreams to his parents. Love without hope is empty, so he made it his mission to create that hope, both for them and for himself. Constantly preparing for a day of freedom that may not come. 

Mike Africa, Jr. with his parents, Debbie and Mike Sr. (Photos courtesy of Mike Africa Jr.)
Mike Africa, Jr. with his parents, Debbie and Mike Sr. (Photos courtesy of Mike Africa Jr.)

America’s era of mass incarceration, which would bloat the prisons full of Black bodies less than two decades later, often created a disconnect between those who were left to piece together their lives outside the prison walls, without their loved ones, and those who were too often forgotten within those walls. Prison is designed to dehumanize under the false veneer of rehabilitation. Within the walls, you are a number. Outside the walls, you are a memory. Mike Africa, Jr. refused to capitulate to these circumstances. He made sure that his flesh and blood remained flesh and blood. 

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You see, while familial Black love was the connective tissue that bound them together, it was a Black political love that would have to triumph over a system that is designed to reject it. Mike Africa, Jr. knew this. He has dedicated his life to using his own freedom to create a strategy for liberation that he hopes could not only free his parents, but also shine a spotlight on the structural obstacles of racism, police brutality, and wrongful incarceration that stripped his parents of an adulthood.

His enemy was an America that feels no remorse as it stares Black love in the face and meets it with hate. 

Kudos to Tommy Oliver, a filmmaker who saw beyond the media narrative to see the deeper story about love.

Mike Africa, Jr . in "40 Years a Prisoner"
Mike Africa, Jr . in “40 Years a Prisoner”

In essence, Mike Africa, Jr.’s forty year journey to free his parents challenged America’s love of its ideals. Could America finally see Mike and Debbie Africa as human beings, or would they continue to be seen, in the words of the racists who harassed, convicted, and imprisoned them, as ‘savages?’ But more importantly, could Mike Africa, Jr. keep his faith so that he never fell into the hate that America wanted to project onto him? 

40 Years a Prisoner shows that in order to triumph over hate, and to lead with love, you must as Fred Hampton once said, commit the revolutionary act of thinking that “I’m going to live for the people because I love the people.” Kudos to Tommy Oliver, a filmmaker who saw beyond the media narrative to see the deeper story about love. Love of family, love of community, love of Black people. And to Mike Africa, Jr., who proved that when you have that love, you just may triumph at the end. 

Watch 40 Years a Prisoner on HBO December 3rd.

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