Local filmmaker's 'Prisoner' can be Zoomed till Nov. 2

by Len Lear
Posted 10/29/20

I have done thousands of articles for Philadelphia area newspapers and magazines over the last 54 years, including 25 years at the Local, but the most bizarre stories I have ever done involved the …

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Local filmmaker's 'Prisoner' can be Zoomed till Nov. 2

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I have done thousands of articles for Philadelphia area newspapers and magazines over the last 54 years, including 25 years at the Local, but the most bizarre stories I have ever done involved the MOVE “back to nature” organization. I bring this up now because a highly praised documentary film by West Oak Lane filmmaker Tommy Oliver, “40 Years a Prisoner,” about members of MOVE is currently being Zoomed as of Oct. 28 into area computers until Nov. 2 as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival.

The film, which includes original music by John Legend, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and hip hop band The Roots, Philly natives who are the house band for the Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show, deals mostly with Mike Africa Jr., who for 40 years never saw his parents together or outside of prison. His parents were released from prison in 2018.

In 1975 a man named Vince Leaphart with disheveled clothing and hair that looked like it had been caught in a hurricane came into the Philadelphia Tribune, where I was working at the time, and told me he wanted me to write an article about a “book” he had written, which he said was a “bible” for the MOVE organization, which I had never heard of before then. He showed me the “book,” which was hundreds of loose pages with hand-written scribbling all over them.

I tried reading a few pages. About half I could not read because of illegible handwriting, and the half that I could read was unintelligible. I might as well have been trying to read a Russian encyclopedia. I told him as much politely, which got Vince (he also referred to himself as “John Africa”) very agitated. I told him that if and when it actually became a hard-bound book to come back and see me.

I later discovered that MOVE members really did regard this book as their Torah or Koran or New Testament. The MOVE members called me fairly often for a few years after that, asking me to cover their demonstrations against slum landlords, unsympathetic public officials, etc. Sometimes I covered them, but mostly I did not because I got tired of listening to the screaming into bullhorns in front of people's houses. At least once they even protested in front of the Philadelphia Zoo, insisting that animals be let out of their cages (which I must admit I could sympathize with).

But the most bizarre episode of all was when a member named Robert Africa, a tall, handsome man who could sound rational most of the time, called me at home at 11 p.m. one weeknight. (A secretary at work gave him my home phone number, which I was not happy about.) He told me his wife, Sue Africa (who grew up in a middle-class Jewish family on the Main Line and graduated from Lower Merion High School), was going to give birth in their house on 33rd Street in Powelton Village on a bed of straw with no medical personnel present (they did not believe in modern medicine) and that I should rush over and take pictures because Sue was going to bite off the umbilical cord with her teeth. (I swear I am not making this up.)

At first, I refused and hung up, but they kept calling back, so finally, I got dressed and drove to the home. Sue was indeed in labor on a bed of straw on the second floor, surrounded by several joyous MOVE members and a few dogs. I did take pictures of Sue biting off the umbilical cord, which wound up on the front page of the Philadelphia Tribune two or three days later.

Oliver's documentary, however, is about a tragic event that took place on Aug. 8, 1978, when a police raid on the 33rd Street house that I had visited wound up with a policeman, James Ramp, being killed and MOVE members being badly beaten by police batons. Their house was razed soon afterward. MOVE members later claimed that they did not fire the shot that killed Ramp but that he was killed by “friendly fire” from another cop. But nine MOVE members were convicted of murder and received life sentences.

In 1985, another firefight ended when a police helicopter dropped a bomb onto the roof of the new MOVE house at 6221 Osage Ave. in West Philly. The resulting fire killed six MOVE members and five of their children and destroyed 65 houses on the block. The police action was condemned by almost everyone, even then-mayor Wilson Goode, who insisted he had no idea a firebomb was going to be dropped on the house. (Goode was re-elected two years later.) The MOVE survivors later filed a civil suit against the city and the police department and were awarded $1.5 million in a 1996 settlement. Other residents displaced by the destruction of the bombing filed a civil suit against the city and in 2005 were awarded $12.83 million in damages in a jury trial.

Oliver said recently that he worked on his documentary for three years and was determined “to be objective and look at things on both sides and portray things fairly and honestly.”

Beyond the 1978 police raid, the documentary is also the story of Mike Africa Jr., who was born in prison to Debbie Sims Africa. She, along with his father, Mike Africa Sr., was one of the nine people convicted in Ramp’s death, and their son worked for decades to see them released. After Debbie Sims Africa and Mike Africa Sr. were released from prison in 2018, they got married at a church in Lansdowne.

Ticket information to “40 Years a Prisoner,” along with a festival schedule, may be found at the Philadelphia Film Society’s website, filmphiladelphia.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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