“The Skyjacker’s Tale”

A Documentary

Amos Lassen

In 1972, 16 people were shot on the grounds of the Fountain Valley Golf Club in St. Croix, part of the Virgin Island that was then and now an American “protectorate”. Eight died, and after a massive roundup of black militants, petty criminals, and whoever happened to be around, a self-styled revolutionary called Ishmael Muslim Ali was given multiple life sentences for the massacre.

He was born Ronald LaBeet to a local mother and a German father and he grew up poor and frustrated at the island’s color-based caste system. Technically he was an American citizen, and was drafted into the U.S. army, quickly shipped to Vietnam, and came back, like many others, radicalized by the experience. He got involved with the Black Panther movement and converted to Islam. Canadian filmmaker Jamie Kastner makes it clear that police used torture to get confessions from Ali and his codefendants and that the trial itself was a pure sham. The judge was a corporate hack appointed by Richard Nixon, and the lead lawyer, famed activist William Kunstler, just might have muddied the waters by over politicizing their defense.

Ali spent more than a dozen years in American prisons before returning to St. Croix on appeal. When that appeal was denied, he managed to smuggle a gun onboard the return flight and overpowered his guards and forced the American Airlines pilot to head for Cuba, where Kastner recently found him. Kastner does not seem to be interested in establishing Ali’s role in the first crime, although the victims of the hijacking (which happened without bloodshed) are less forgiving. Ali comes across as an unlikable character with no wisdom or insight. Here is a man who, on New Year’s Eve, 1984, hijacked a passenger flight en route to New York City from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Years earlier he been convicted for his part in a robbery that left eight people murdered, and while those facts are never in dispute, director Jamie Kastner manages to throw them aside.

The film’s early scenes focus on the two events most inextricably tied to Ali: the hijacking, in which he eventually forced the plane to land in Cuba, and the bloody event known as the Fountain Valley Massacre, which occurred in St. Croix in 1972. Kastner explores one and then the other, showing how the two crimes seem too different to have been committed by the same person. In order to take over the flight, Ali, as a prisoner, had to escape his handcuffs as well as outmaneuver several armed men. By contrast, the massacre was hard, fast, and violent, involving countless rounds unloaded rapidly at an upscale golf resort and for a small amount of money. It’s possible Ali took part in both crimes, but the mass shooting doesn’t seem to match his M.O. Also such a bloody deed also seems incongruous with a man who had served in the Vietnam War which haunted him. He subsequently rejected American ideals of democracy and embraced communism. The film makes a point that this was during the 1960s during a turbulent era in which legions of Americans went through similar forms of rebellion. In Ali’s case, he became awakened to the economic and racial inequalities in his homeland, and so he returned to St. Croix, where he supported himself through petty criminal activity while taking part in a movement for a free and independent Virgin Islands.

The first half of the film makes us question whether Ali could be a cold-blooded murderer while the second half explores how a possibly innocent man could be convicted for such a crime and punished with eight consecutive life sentences. Kastner’s theory is that the massacre hurt tourism to the islands, and so the U.S. government acted swiftly to punish Ali and several other co-defendants. Through interviews with various attorneys, law enforcement officials, and other parties who took part in the original arrest and trial, the film argues that the original proceedings amounted to a kangaroo court. Particularly, there’s the issue of whether torture was used by police to secure confessions, which the court, presided over by a flunky of the Nixon administration, treats in a manner that seems unlikely able to actual justice. Kastner gives equal time to persons on both sides of the case, yet the prosecution gradually seems less and less credible.

The film reframes the initial skyjacking as a desperate attempt to escape persecution, as opposed to a guilty man trying to avoid justice, and turns Ali into something of a hero. Kastner repeatedly uses dramatic recreations that allow for a visceral experience. During the staged version of the hijacking, there’s a moment in which the camera cuts to a series of worried reaction shots by the passengers after they learn their plane has been commandeered by none other than Ishmael Muslim Ali.

We can watch this film as an attempt to correct a possible miscarriage of justice, but it’s also a highly empathic tale of someone who made a desperate stab at freedom, only to be trapped by his own success. This is a documentary that is that filled with dramatic vibrancy and intrigue.

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