Considering how Donald Trump recently made a big deal about canceling the previous administration’s plans to ease relations with Cuba — even calling for the island to extradite revolutionary, alleged cop killer, political fugitive and Tupac godmother Assata Shakur back to America — you know it’s a matter of time before someone tells him about Ishmail Muslim Ali.
Ali (formerly Ronald LaBeet), who spent 12 years in hellish U.S. federal prisons after being convicted of murder, pulled off the impossible on New Year’s Eve 1984. While being transported back to the United States from the Virgin Islands, where he had failed to win an appeal, he sneaked a gun onto a plane and hijacked it, taking everyone on the plane hostage, including the officers charged with guarding him, and ordering the pilot to fly him to Cuba. The people on the plane took him seriously when he told them he was “the Fountain Valley Murderer.”
In the documentary The Skyjacker’s Tale, Ali says he did this for effect, and he maintains his innocence in the case in question. In 1972, Ali and four associates were tried and convicted for the shooting deaths of eight people at the Fountain Valley Golf Course, a bit of land in St. Croix that was owned by the Rockefeller family. Ali, then a radical who'd previously lived in New York and worked with Black Panthers, admits sticking up tourists to fund his liberation movement (after all, white people were taking over the place, buying property and refusing to give jobs to the natives). But after serving in the Army — following orders to kill innocents during the Vietnam War, he says — Ali was done with murdering.
But the authorities in St. Croix didn’t want to hear it. While the FBI played the nice-guy role, respectfully questioning the suspects, the local police put the squeeze on them. Ali and the others reported that the cops were torturing the hell out of them — waterboarding, strangulation, hanging, cattle-prodding their junk — in order to get confessions. While those allegations fell on deaf ears during the heavily divisive trial, one officer who worked the case chillingly comes clean in the movie, admitting he would’ve lied about it if he’d taken the stand.
Tale doesn’t try to solve the murders — we don’t even get sit-downs with the men convicted as his accomplices, who make a fleeting, incarcerated appearance near the end — but it does make a compelling case that Ali couldn’t have done it. Canadian documentarian Jamie Kastner (The Secret Disco Revolution) has crafted an entertainingly kitschy version of an Errol Morris film, interviewing Ali and many of the main players from the investigation, the trial and the aircraft (who say Ali was actually a nice, respectful hijacker) and re-creating the events with actors. And he does it all with a jazzy, retro snap, using a funkified score and cutting and shooting the hijack scenes as though he’s making a 1970s caper movie.
But the movie’s focus is always on the elder, amusingly foul-mouthed Ali, now living free with family in Cuba. Kastner opens following Ali as he rounds up some ladies, hops on a trolley and paints the town red. He offsets this sequence with interview bits from the (predominantly white) people who tried to put him away, who call him “evil,” “a coward” and “a terrorist.” While America (and most of the Americans in the movie) still characterizes Ali as the murderous outlaw who slipped away — when his half-brother Shawn was shot and killed by police a few years back for allegedly killing a Miami cop, the local press painted Ali as dangerous and still at-large — The Skyjacker’s Tale may make you hope that President Orange Creamsicle never finds out about this dude.