Before skyjacking became synonymous with suicidally smashing a plane into a building, there was something undeniably sexy about it. The idea that you could outrun your pedestrian problems, commandeer a jet, and fly off into your own personal promised land (and maybe stick it to The Man in the process) captivated many. Many more than most people remember, in fact: During the “golden age of hijacking,” between 1968 and 1973, planes were hijacked at the rate of nearly one per week. Sometimes, the hijackers even got away with it.
One of the lucky ones (or smart, or strategic, or crazy enough) was Ishmael Ali (formerly Ishmael Labeet). A self-professed black militant and member of a Black Panther faction from the Caribbean island of St. Croix, in 1984 Ali was on a flight from St. Croix back to the mainland where he was scheduled to serve out eight consecutive life sentences for his part in a shooting massacre that killed eight at a St. Croix golf course owned by the Rockafeller family. Despite being handcuffed and sandwiched between two air marshals, Ali somehow produced a pistol, commandeered the plane, and ordered the pilots to fly him to Cuba, where he’s lived ever since.
Some black revolutionaries of the era, who gravitated towards Marxism as it was obviously the opposite pole of world influence at the time — if you thought the U.S. were corrupt, imperialist warmongers, maybe the folks they were constantly demonizing actually weren’t so bad? — sought asylum in any overtly anti-American country that would have them, from Algiers to North Korea. There, as you might expect, they by and large had a bad time. By contrast, Ishmael Ali’s choice of Cuba seems to have worked out pretty well.
The free world hadn’t heard from Ali in 30-some years, until Canadian documentarian Jamie Kastner discovered him through random coincidence (tipped off by a friend of his mechanic, who had run into Ali while traveling to Cuba). Kastner, who had directed The Secret Disco Revolution and Kike Like Me, had no personal connections to either the Virgin Islands or Cuba, but he was smart enough to know a good story when it fell in his lap. So he set off to Cuba to find Ali and secure the first-ever interviews. Kastner profiles Ali in The Skyjacker’s Tale, playing this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Ali’s flight to freedom alone is a hell of a story, but that isn’t the half of it. There’s also the events that caused Ali (then Labeet) to become a dissident, the court case that made him a fugitive, and the 30 years in exile afterwards. Then there are the big questions. Ali maintains he never committed the murders he was convicted of in the first place, which led to a trial in which he was defended by famous radical lawyer William Kunstler before a judge appointed by Richard Nixon, in which confessions were alleged to have been procured using torture. Did he do it? When does righteous resistance become terrorism? Was Ali common criminal or revolutionary? And then there’s the coda: Will the U.S.’s warming relations with Cuba mean the end of Cuba as a safe haven? Do the Marxist-jargon spouting black revolutionaries of the ’70s have anything to teach today’s police brutality protesters? Any cautionary tales?
There’s a lot going on in The Skyjacker’s Tale, almost too much for one movie to handle. I got to pick Jamie Kastner’s brain about it while he tries to sell the film this week at TIFF.
How did you first hear about this story?
I came to this story completely at random through my car mechanic. I drive a 30-year-old Mercedes, beautiful clunker, that necessitates a close relationship with a mechanic. Fortunately, this mechanic is kind of an intellectual, politically minded guy, who one day said, “You do docs. I have a buddy who goes down to Cuba regularly, and uhm, he met this guy in a bar who hijacked a plane to get there.”
We Googled this guy, and there he was. The broad strokes of what became the story were flashed for the first time before my eyes: the hijacking, these murderers that he was associated with, and some kind of black revolutionary stuff. It wasn’t clear how it all fit together, needless to say, at that point. This friend of the mechanic’s was an intermediary, and within a couple of months I was on a plane to Cuba going to meet this guy.
Were you the first journalist to go and discover Ishmael in Cuba?
Yes. This is the first interview he’s done since the hijacking, since New Year’s Eve, 1984.
As a non-fiction writer, I tend to think that non-fiction is harder than fiction in a lot of ways that people never think about. What do you think are the challenge of documentary filmmaking?
Of course, there’s challenges to both, but it’s true. With a fictional script, if you need a scene, you can just write it. With a documentary, that has to be faithful to real events. You are always bound by what can you get camera, and in that regard it’s that much harder than just an audio project, or a written one. There’s no subtle way to walk into a room, I guess there are hidden cameras, but broadly speaking, people know you’re there, people that get self-conscious, etc.
I didn’t really want [to interview] authors or academics or people who were degrees removed from the story. I think everybody, in the end, remarkably enough, and a testament to my excellent researchers, we managed to unearth a fairly amazing range of players from all sides of all of the episodes involved. So yeah, you’re challenged by who can you get, what are they prepared to say, and finally, there’s a visual challenge. The curse of the documentary — what are we going to look at that’s not a talking head?
Obviously there’s a reason that you’re coming out with this documentary now. What do you think the parallels between the protest movements of the ’60s and early ’70s are with now?
When I first came across this story, I thought it was a fascinating historical story, and it was amazing to just hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. As I began working on it, world events, for better and worse, conspired to make this like front page news, the issues in this film. Who could have predicted the end of the 60-year U.S. embargo? I mean it’s not over yet, but I mean, the crumbling, the beginning, the first steps of that last tenant of the Cold War. On one hand, looking back at what was happening … It could fairly be characterized as a civil war. That may sound a little dramatic, but the more I read about the black movements, and what was happening with the Black Panthers, and what inspired them in the first place, and then how they were undermined, yeah, it was war.
Watching the film again at the premiere the other night, I hadn’t seen it in a while, and seeing it with an audience is always a new experience, I really felt that so much of what is portrayed of that era, about what was going on with black people in the States and the abuse they were suffering, also feels like it was ripped out of yesterday’s newspaper. Unfortunately. It’s like a tragic bookend to this story.
For the Black Power movement in the ’60s and ’70s, when they got militarized, like Ishmael did, it led to this flirtation with Marxism. There’s two ways to look at that, where one way is that it caused the other side to dig in harder, like with Nixon getting elected [on a law and order platform] and everything else, and the other way to look at it is that it made some of the more moderate reformers — the radicals made their position seem more palatable to the status quo. Where do you think we’re at now? Is there a parallel today with some of the protest movements going on?
My sense generally speaking, and I’m not pretending to be any kind of expert on the current scene, but my sense is that one of the unfortunate features of that rhetorical battle of the ’60s, and I would even say stretching back to the McCarthyism in the States, is that there was an attempt to discredit the left. I had a film in development one time called Do I Hate Stalin Enough, because I was intrigued by how even after the end of the Cold War, officially, broadly speaking, around the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in the U.S.S.R., “socialist” was still a dirty word in the States.
I think that one of the features of that rhetorical battle is that, yeah, they discredited it, made it seem unhip and uncool to be politically organized. I think think that the landscape now is… I mean, who knows, maybe this is just how things evolve, and old ideas are adapted, or new things crop up? It does feel like there’s a disconnect, and it’s unfortunate there’s a real loss, there’s a break in the history of… It was so uncool to be politically organized, and now the world is more f*cked up than ever, and… I don’t know if I answered the question. They’re all very deep questions.
Yeah, sorry, that was a bit of a philosophical meditation. Is Ishmael, do you consider him more of a street criminal or a genuine revolutionary? Is there a way to tell the difference?
One of the interesting challenges of telling this story, which I hopefully recreate for the audience, in the structure of this film, which I experienced while I was gathering the material, was the sequence of trying to figure out the truth at every step as you gathered new information. I heard his story first from him. Actually, no. I heard it first from stuff I read, and then I met him and I heard a completely different version of events, and I heard a much more detailed version as well. One of the things he was claiming was that he had done work with the Black Panthers in New York and Chicago after being dishonorably discharged from the army during Vietnam. He then was in the course of starting to try to sow the seeds of a Black Power movement locally in the Virgin Islands.
He said this, and he said that they were being harassed by the cops, while he freely admitted to petty crime, as he does in the film. It’s one of those things that someone tells you, and he’s a very… I also think he’s such a wonderful documentary character, for various reasons, because he’s so smart, he’s so charismatic, he’s funny, he’s scary, he’s sexy. He’s a compelling storyteller, but the journalist in me felt compelled to do my due diligence, and also I thought it would make for a stronger narrative. The audience would demand it, not to just take his word for it.
Even though I believed him, I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to find a police officer, 40 years later, who said, “These guys were black activists. They were into Marx, they were into the theory, and we had been tracking them and hounding them and reporting back to the FBI.” A cop, who was very much coming from a different point of view than Ali, completely corroborated his story.
Did you make a conscious decision not to bring up his his half-brother, who I think, supposedly, killed some cops in Miami?
His dad [who was a white man from the mainland] seems to have fathered an astounding number children with a wide range of women, over a long span of fathering.
I came across a story somewhere that somebody named Labeet. A much, much younger… I think this guy was… I don’t know the details of this off-hand.
Shawn, his name was…
…I’m sure Ali hasn’t even met him, and knows nothing about him, and that he was involved in a crime in Miami. Ali, or as he was still known then, Labeet is still probably the most notorious Virgin Islands criminal. His name is still very loaded in the Virgin Islands now. It was something like Virgin Islands Press, or somebody was making this connection, but it was pretty tenuous. It has nothing to do with Ali or his story. Of one of his 75 half-brothers, one was involved in a crime 40 years later. Aha! A pattern!
Right. I’ve read that Ali, he considers himself a hardcore communist. Did you try and downplay any current politics of his, or was that more from him?
It was funny, in a way. Talking to him is sort of like a time warp. For one thing, look, he’s living in a communist country that’s been very good to him. He believes it. Just as a certain worldview is the norm in North America, an alternative world view is just the norm there… We’re watching CNN, FOX, blah, blah, blah, and forming our opinions, as they sit there watching TeleSUR, and whatever. It’s not unusual they’re coming at things from exactly the opposite angle. So you take it in context. He is a loyal Cuban, I guess. He is a child of the ’60s and ’70s radical movement and he still talks like out of that glossary.
He refers to the “United SnaKKKes of America” with three Ks. I mean, look, you make certain choices about what, call it color, in the sense of colorful characteristics. You got to make choices. I think his character comes across, but I mean, there is so much key story in this thing, that there wasn’t room for anymore detours. You know?
There’s already enough unbelievable, serious plot points in this thing to figure out how to structure it.
When he hijacked the plane and he took it to Cuba, did he think he was going to get political asylum? Was there legal wrangling when he got there about whether they were going to give him asylum?
It’s funny to look at that whole era now, because it seems… it seems like a relatively innocent era of air-terrorism, if it’s not to tasteless to say that. There was this so-called golden age of skyjacking that went on, and at its peak, I believe the statistic is that for a four-year period, this was in the ’70s — he was towards the end of the trend — at its peak, one plane a week was hijacked. Often to Cuba. This is all just fascinating back story, quite honestly, that there wasn’t room for in the film, but it was certainly interesting. Castro enjoyed thumbing his nose at the Americans early on, and hanging onto their planes for a while, and screwing with them.
Eventually, by the time Ali hijacked the plane, the U.N. had compelled Cuba to crack down on air piracy, to discourage it, because it was so common. It was like, “The bus is slow, I’ll just hijack a plane.” Not everybody was political. There are a lot of stories of nutters doing it, and for the most insane range of tragic, comic reasons. By the time Ali did, yes he was adamant, and he told the passengers on the plane that he was a political prisoner, and that he was seeking freedom, and so on and so forth. This is what he told the Cubans when he landed. However, the U.N., by that time, had forced Cuba to crack down on air piracy, and it was a crime there, and he got sentenced to 15 years in Cuba, of which he wound up serving eight.
Nevertheless, Cuba did not just take any nutter who hijacked a plane and give them political asylum. In the end, actually, people in the movement vouched for him, including Assata Shakur [who’s still in Cuba herself] after whom [Ali’s] daughter there is named.
Ali claims that he just smuggled the gun under his shirt, whereas most of the news reports say, like, “Oh, he found it.” Someone stashed it in the bathroom, for him. Which version of that do you believe?
The choice of The Skyjacker’s Tale, as a title, was of course, conscious, and part of what I meant to imply by it is… You know there are many sides to every story, and we have, actually within this film, several tales, but his is the dominant narrative. I wanted to make it plain that we’re getting — I know, it’s sort of obvious — but we’re getting his version of events. Sometimes, the other voices in the film corroborate what he’s saying, often they contradict it wildly. One of the great challenges of this material was how rich it was, and many how many dramatic stories there are in this.
When you started making it… I’m sure when you started researching this guy, everything just took it as a given that he’d killed all these people. Were you surprised to hear him maintain his innocence? Did you know that there was going to be something that wasn’t quite resolved there?
When I found out about this in this random way, it all actually came together quickly. Car mechanic, intermediary, us being put in touch, and then him saying, “yeah, come and meet me”, and then I’m going to Cuba. Until you really start digging deep, there isn’t that much immediately that on first Google that gives you a deep understanding of this crime.
I found myself sitting in this long cab ride across Cuba, reading this one book that has been written about the trial, that I could find. Some out-of-print thing. Wasn’t a very good book, but it was based on the police and trial transcripts. It was thorough enough. I believed that I was going to meet a mass murderer, and I could not figure out how this was a political crime. There also seemed to be stuff, that was evidence, that he had been involved in black power stuff. I just couldn’t understand how this was a political crime.
It was not without trepidation that I was going to go and meet a guy who for sure had murdered eight people. Once I met him, and he told me a completely different side of the story, including, as he says, that he completely denies, and that he’s never been to Fountain Valley, and all the rest of it. Yes, I was completely surprised, and the plot thickened that much more.
How much time did you spend in Saint Croix, and did you get a sense that race relations were different, or better, now than they were then?
I spent a fair bit of time in Saint Croix, between a research trip and, I think, two shoots. I must have spent about three weeks or more there, all in all, maybe a bit more. The race lines in the movie, one of the things that appealed to me about this story, is that it is about race and power, but not always in ways in which you’d expect. The racial lines in black and white are not always black and white. There’s some of what you’d expect in a colony, with bad rich white people doing bad things, and there’s also black people in positions of power doing bad things, and dubious things. There’s also some, of course, decent white people too.
No, I didn’t get the feeling that race relations had improved wonderfully down there. I think there’s still very much a rich and a poor. That isn’t to say the governor is black, and there are obviously various functionaries in positions of power who are black. Yeah, I felt the race divide pretty acutely, actually, down there, which added to challenge of me, as a white guy from Toronto, however sympathetic I was to the local black population. It was a not an un-challenging situation to penetrate that community, and have them share with me the details of their most notorious crime.
Right, have you sold it? Any news on that front?
No news yet. There have been some sales, but I’m not releasing any details yet. I will say that the interest, the advanced interest in this film, from buyers and even whatever Hollywood people interested in remaking it, is completely unprecedented in my previous experience. So, I’m thrilled.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.