Philadelphia film maker Tommy Oliver has crafted a detailed and fair retelling of the 1978 MOVE confrontation in the Powelton Village neighborhood of West Philadelphia as a vehicle to examine the efforts of Michael Sims, Jr., in supporting his parents, jailed after the incident.
Sims was born in prison to Debbie Sims, one of the so-called MOVE 9 who were jailed following the death of policeman James Ramp during the showdown at MOVE’s headquarters. She and her husband, Michael Sr., were ultimately released in 2018 after serving more than 30-years. Much of the film celebrates the reuniting of the family while examining the system that put all the MOVE members in jail in the first place, a system many believe was flawed and unjust.
The story of Michael Sims’ quest to find evidence of his parents’ innocence is woven throughout the film. But Oliver’s use of archival film, video and news reports from the mid 1970’s provides a compelling story that pitted a self-styled group of revolutionaries against Mayor Frank Rizzo, whose sheer hatred of MOVE is evident throughout. These were two immovable forces destined for a showdown, and it happened on August 8, 1978. Interviews with MOVE members then and now, police officers, journalists (including myself and former colleague Frank Goldstein) and neighbors shine a light on the fraught relationship MOVE had with its neighbors. The inevitability of the final, violent encounter is foreshadowed by community leaders and lawyers who tried to de-escalate tensions but ultimately gave up. The death of police officer James Ramp further inflamed Rizzo, Police Commissioner Joseph O’Neill and police officers across the city, many of whom applauded the brutal beating suffered by MOVE member Delbert Orr Africa by police after he surrendered. The murder trial of the nine MOVE adults degenerated into a daily ritual of screaming and cursing by the defendants who were then ejected from the courtroom. The judge pronounced all the defendants guilty.
There are plenty of questions to ask and director Oliver asks and answers most through research and interviews with those who were involved before, during and after the incident. The film ends with poignant moments among the Sims family, reunited after 40 years of imprisonment and separation, and a brief interview with Delbert Orr Africa who was released in 2020 and died of cancer later the same year
For students of Philadelphia history, 40 Years A Prisoner, shown on HBO and streamed on HBO MAX, is a faithful and informative piece of storytelling. But it’s also a reminder that injustice isn’t a modern day phenomenon. At the same time, so much has changed, and so much has stayed the same.