“I think that he’s evil.”
“I hope he’s rotting in hell.”
“He is a terrorist.”
“He is a coward and a cheat… and not worthy of being numbered amongst men.”
The harsh words that open The Skyjacker’s Tale are directed toward the titular “sky jacker,” Ishmael Muslim Ali — although the speakers make sure to use his former name, Ronald LaBeet, the name under which he was convicted in 1973 for the murder of eight people at the Fountain Valley Golf Course in St. Croix, Virgin Island a year before. The perpetrators of the “Fountain Valley massacre” were allegedly five Virgin Islanders — including and led by Ali — believed to have shot the victims execution-style in the course of a robbery gone bad.
All five men, who had styled themselves black nationalists resembling groups like The Black Panthers, and who had previously committed several robberies to fund their revolutionary goals, were convicted of multiple charges of murder, assault, and robbery, and were sentenced to eight consecutive life sentences each in federal prison. The vitriol above is especially acidic, considering the subjects being interviewed fully believe that Ali later avoided justice when he hijacked a flight from the Virgin Islands, where he’d just lost an appeal, and redirected the flight from New York, where he would have been incarcerated, to Cuba, where he now lives as a free man. His current life, there, is the center of Canadian filmmaker Jamie Kastner’s documentary, The Skyjacker’s Tale.
As for how he describes himself, Ali has a simple rebuttal: “I’m not a revolutionary, I’m not a criminal.” He pleads his own defense — from exile in Cuba — in an interview with Kastner, whose documentary seeks, if not to make a case if not for Ali’s innocence, then to prove Ali’s claim. Namely, that he was politically railroaded into conviction on the flimsiest of evidence — a coerced confession. The film reveals that the confession was coerced through torture in a chilling interview with one of the arresting officers.
The film details the murders, Ali’s trial and hellish incarceration, and his eventual, daring escape, where he took a plane full of people hostage by sneaking a gun into the plane’s bathroom. Set to a soundtrack of funky, ’70s-style jazz, Kastner interviews some of the hostages, the police who arrested and interrogated the accused Fountain Valley killers, and legal professionals who participated in the trial. But the primary focus here is Ishmael Muslim Ali, who comes across as charmingly foul-mouthed, yet maintains his innocence throughout, saying, “I’ve never even been to Fountain Valley. Poor people don’t play too much golf — it’s a rich man’s sport.”
Kastner is the nephew of filmmaker John Kastner and actor Peter Kastner, and previously directed 2012’s The Secret Disco Revolution. His motivations for telling this story now, forty years after the events that sent Ali to prison for twelve years began with a change in policy toward Cuba. “While I was working on it, Obama made the announcement in December 2014 to start the process of restoring diplomatic relationships with Cuba,” he said. “Immediately, this old issue of these American fugitives in Cuba became headline news again. People began calling for the heads of these fugitives.”
“Ali’s position in Cuba had become a lot more precarious, and Trump has put it in the headlines again with his bombastic new policy, and called for these fugitives to be returned in recent weeks.” The point is addressed toward the end of The Skyjacker’s Tale, with Ali stating that he isn’t worried, saying that another blow wouldn’t phase him, as consecutive life sentences and a life in exile are enough blows to numb him to the possibility. Kastner wonders if Ali is really safe, saying, “He has an old-school, macho way of not discussing his feelings. I’m sure he’s worried; he has a whole family there, and if he were to lose that family in Cuba, that would be the second family he’s lost in his lifetime.”
The film becomes more important in light of recent events, as the stories political refugees like Ali and Assata Shakur are being resurfaced while the temperature of racial tensions in America are slowly being brought back to a boil by highly publicized police killings of mostly black citizens — the same conditions that led to the rise of revolutionary activism in the 1960s and ‘70s. As it became more and more clear then that the government could not be consistently relied on to protect the interests and lives of marginalized people, more turned to Black Nationalist groups like the Black Panthers as a possible solution.
Kastner also sees the parallel between those prior movements and newer ones like Black Lives Matter. “History is conspiring to make this film relevant,” he says, “It’s not just a forty year-old story. The stories that get unearthed in the telling of the tale of the murders, and moreover of the arrests, the interrogations, and this scandalous trial… so many aspects of that feel like they could have been ripped out of the headlines of last week’s paper. It is shockingly similar to today.”
While the film never takes it upon itself to resolve the issue of who actually was responsible for the Fountain Valley killings — Ali jokingly contrasts himself to the protagonist of the The Fugitive, denying any intent to follow the example of Richard Kimble — it does have some compelling things to say about a broken justice system that continues to make the same mistakes of the past.
The film, which was an official film selection at the acclaimed Toronto International Film Festival last year, opened in New York late last month and will see national release, including Los Angeles, this Friday, July 14 at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center.