Would Jesus Set Mumia Free?

Since the missus and I have no children, no parents, relatives are 700 miles away, and friends are out of town with families, we have few Christmas traditions other than to watch a lot of movies. Last night gave us the chance to see Let the Fire Burn, a documentary about Move, the Afrocentric organization that used Africa as the surname for members and tried to go back to nature — get this — in West Philadelphia. They even dug up the sidewalk in front of their row house. You can imagine how the neighbors — mostly black — thought about that. John Africa was the founder of the group and he became the inspiration for Mumia abu Jamal, the most famous person ever convicted and imprisoned for killing a cop. The movie’s title refers to the decision of the Wilson Goode administration to drop an “incendiary device” on Move’s home during the final showdown with police, a decision that led to a fire that destroyed almost two entire city blocks of row homes. If Goode had been a white mayor, what might have happened?

On one level, this depiction of black separatism almost forty years before Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writings about institutional racism makes you appreciate how deep seated the despair is that haunts the African-American experience. Combine that with the way kids in Coates’ W. Baltimore neighborhood chose to make a living — by selling drugs — and you also begin to think that almost nothing can overcome the barriers that race relations have erected in U.S. history. Transformationalism? Great Society? War on Drugs? Morning in America? As if.

But in some ways the problems are even larger than the troubling history of white dominance in North America. Big institutions are failing and Hollywood is warming up to the theme. Spotlight exposed the failures of the episcopate in Boston. The Big Short — very, very good, by the way — shows the inadequacies of federal bank regulators. Let the Fire Burn and The Wire document the severe handicaps of urban governments.

Put no hope institutions. Good thing Jesus came, died, went away, and will come again.

(At the risk of sounding pietistic, tonight’s viewing will likely be either Family Man or About a Boy, two underrated Christmas movies.)