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Film Reviews The Skyjacker’s Tale: Engaging but scattershot doc lacks nuance

In The Skyjacker’s Tale, is about a decades-old case of murder, economic disparity, toxic race relations and a justice system that seemed to favour white mainlanders over the local black population.

2 out of 4 stars

Title
The Skyjacker’s Tale
Written by
Jamie Kastner
Directed by
Jamie Kastner
Starring
Ishmael Muslim Ali, Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Leroy Mercer
Country
USA
Language
English

In the early 1970s, the U.S. Virgin Islands was a bustling blue-sky paradise: Tourists and industry flocked to the Caribbean archipelago, attracted by the spotless white-sand beaches and what seemed to be the relatively soft touch of American colonialism. Hess Oil's massive new refinery lifted the local economy and there was so little crime that nobody bothered to lock their doors. But everything changed on Sept. 6, 1972, when five black locals massacred eight people – seven white tourists and a black maintenance worker – at the Fountain Valley Golf Course, a St. Croix refuge owned by the Rockefeller family.

At least, that's the schematically drawn backdrop for The Skyjacker's Tale, an engaging if scattershot new documentary from director Jamie Kastner (Kike Like Me, The Secret Disco Revolution) about a decades-old case of murder, economic disparity, toxic race relations and a justice system that seemed to favour white mainlanders over the local black population. The more nuanced reality, which curious viewers can glean through a dip into archival news footage available online, largely fails to push its way into the film's frames.

The skyjacker in question, and the charismatic centre of Kastner's film, is Ishmael Muslim Ali, a.k.a. Ronald Labeet, a black Islander whose teenage brushes with the law in the mid-1960s led to a recommended stint in the U.S. Army. Over in Vietnam, he grew disenchanted with the United States and its murderous foreign policy, quitting the military with a dishonourable discharge and moving to New York, where he took up with the Black Panthers. Ali returned to St. Croix as a self-described "revolutionary," where, as he gleefully admits to Kastner's camera, he spent his days sticking up tourists for cash.

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So, when terror struck at the Fountain Valley club – witnesses said the attackers screamed anti-white epithets while spraying bullets – Ali and his associates were scooped up as primary suspects. In short order, they signed confessions.

Then, the circus came to town. William Kunstler, the radical New York lawyer who had defended the Chicago Seven, took on the case and argued the confessions had been extracted through torture. His former wife, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, pops up to note the similarities with "what's happening now" in America and that "you couldn't stand on the sidelines," while riots over institutionalized racism erupted in the streets. But Kastner doesn't play up the parallels.

In the end, the trial judge – a Nixon appointee and former Rockefeller employee – ruled against the men, sentencing them each to eight life terms plus 90 years. Ali served 12 years before he managed, during a judicial transfer from St. Croix to New York in 1984, to orchestrate a hijacking that brought him to Cuba.

Lacking archival footage, Kastner stages true crime re-enactments of the massacre and the hijacking, bringing both moments to horrific life. The scenes are intercut with interviews with supporting players, including the airline pilot and a waitress who witnessed the murders. (Showing the fetish for the 1970s that he displayed in his doc The Secret Disco Revolution, Kastner nails the period details nicely.)

But Ali, who had not been heard from since the hijacking, is the star of the show, and the film revels in the access to a fault. So, even as he cuts confusingly between talking heads and time periods, Kastner elides key details that might have given viewers a more complex portrait of both the setting and his anti-hero's role in the drama. He isn't interested in probing the who-done-it of the massacre, so taken is he instead with the question of whether the men were tortured. And while Kastner comes up with a newsworthy scoop on that front, it's disappointing to watch him fritter away other opportunities.

Just as he took control of the plane, Ali commandeers the picture. For better and worse, this is the skyjacker's tale.

Ishmael Muslim Ali, subject of The Skyjacker's Tale, will participate in a Q&A via Skype after the film's premiere Jan. 20 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto.

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