You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘A Skyjacker’s Tale’

Director Jamie Kastner’s muddle documentary squanders first-hand access to a wanted criminal.

Ishmael Muslim Ali (AKA Ishmael LaBeet), Leroy Mercer, Michael Ratner, Brit Bryant, Jeffrey Resnick, Legrand Lee, Ohanio Harris, Tina Tuitt, Dennis McIntosh, Ken Korshin.

A country club massacre, an audacious kidnapping at 20,000 feet, Vietnam, the Black Panther Party, coerced confessions, white justice: There’s no shortage of compelling angles to the story of Ishmael Muslim Ali, the defiant fugitive currently tucked away in an unspecified Cuban enclave. But “A Skyjacker’s Tale” is all in the telling, and Jamie Kastner’s haphazard documentary misses the opportunity to get it right, despite having access to Ali and an impressive assembly of major players from his past.

Cutting between present-day Cuba, the Virgin Islands in the early ’70s, and a fateful New Year’s Eve flight in 1984, Kastner makes a choppy, hectic hash out of talking-head interviews and amateurishly staged recreations, losing both the outrageous kick of the story and its troubling social context. The end result may be digestible television at 76 minutes, but theatrical prospects remain stuck on the tarmac.

“I think that’s he’s evil” is only the first of many sour assessments of Ali, who was known as Ishmael LaBeet when he was convicted for participating in mass murder and later commandeered the flight that brought him safe harbor in Cuba. Ali claims himself to be a revolutionary, not a criminal, and continues to deny a role in the “Fountain Valley Massacre,” an armed assault on a St. Croix golf club that left eight dead in 1972. The violence underscored a dramatic transformation on the once-peaceful Virgin Islands, which has changed after accommodating the business and tourist needs of white Americans at the expense of the locals. The Hess oil company built a massive refinery with the promise of new jobs, but imported white workers and executives, opening up a class and racial gap between poor black residents and white interlopers.

There’s good reason to suspect Ali and his associates were involved in the murders. After leaving the U.S. Army on a dishonorable discharge in Vietnam, Ali settled briefly in New York, where he got involved in the Black Panther movement, and returned to his home in the Virgin Islands, where he sold weed and stuck up tourists for cash. Nevertheless, the authorities wanted quick justice for the Fountain Valley murders and Ali accuses them, with good reason, of railroading him and his cohorts through torture tactics, an usually speedy trial, and multiple life sentences without a hearing. After a habeas corpus appeal failed, Ali resolved to pull off the skyjacking that brought him freedom in Cuba.

Slathering a wah-wah ’70s score on the soundtrack, Kastner gets commentary from an impressive array of subjects: the pilot, a flight attendant, a guard, and some of the passengers on the plane in 1984; a defense lawyer, an assistant attorney, a security chief, an FBI agent, and a Fountain Valley waitress from 1972; and other experts who can speak to the two crimes under review. Yet this chorus of voices creates a problem for Kastner and his editor, Jorge Parra, who dice up the interviews into quick-hit soundbites that diminish the impact of their individual contributions.

The Ali case has implications on racial injustice in the Caribbean, suggesting an unsettling pattern of exploitation when the U.S. makes playgrounds for the white and wealthy in countries like the Virgin Islands. But it’s also a hell of a yarn, which is where “A Skyjacker’s Tale” most conspicuously falls short. There’s enough material in Ali’s life to make a thriller, a procedural, and a social drama all wrapped up into one, but Kastner can’t summon the energy and craft to bring it across. He’s done the hard journalistic work of gathering his facts and sources, but he can’t get these jagged little pieces to fit together.

Film Review: 'A Skyjacker's Tale'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 11, 2016. Running time: 76 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Canada) A Telefilm Canada and the Rogers Group of Funds through the Theatrical Documentary Program presentation of a Cave 7 production. (International sales: C7 International, Toronto.) Producer: Jamie Kastner.

Crew: Director, writer: Jamie Kastner. Camera: Derek Rogers. Editor: Jorge Parra.

With: Ishmael Muslim Ali (AKA Ishmael LaBeet), Leroy Mercer, Michael Ratner, Brit Bryant, Jeffrey Resnick, Legrand Lee, Ohanio Harris, Tina Tuitt, Dennis McIntosh, Ken Korshin.

More Film

  • 'The Dirt' Review: A Mötley Crüe

    Film Review: 'The Dirt'

    A long time ago, the words sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll carried a hint of danger. The lifestyle did, too, but I’m talking about the phrase. It used to sound cool (back around the time the word “cool” sounded cool). But sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll has long since passed into the realm [...]

  • James Newton Howard Danny Elfman

    New Trend in Concert Halls: Original Music by Movie Composers — No Film Required

    Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall. For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his [...]

  • Idris Elba Netflix 'Turn Up Charlie'

    Idris Elba in Talks to Join Andy Serkis in 'Mouse Guard'

    Idris Elba is in negotiations to join Andy Serkis and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Fox’s fantasy-action movie “Mouse Guard” with “Maze Runner’s” Wes Ball directing. Fox is planning a live-action movie through performance capture technology employed in the “Planet of the Apes” films, in which Serkis starred as the ape leader Caesar. David Peterson created, wrote, [...]

  • Zac Efron Amanda Seyfried

    Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried Join Animated Scooby-Doo Film as Fred and Daphne

    Zac Efron has signed on to voice Fred Jones while Amanda Seyfried will voice Daphne Blake in Warner Bros.’ animated Scooby-Doo feature film “Scoob.” It was revealed earlier this month that Will Forte had been set to voice Norville “Shaggy” Rogers, while Gina Rodriguez would be voicing Velma Dinkley. The mystery-solving teens and their talking [...]

  • 'Staff Only' Review: Cultures And Values

    Film Review: 'Staff Only'

    Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather [...]

  • Rocketman

    Candid 'Rocketman' Dares to Show Elton John as 'Vulnerable,' 'Damaged,' 'Ugly'

    Elton John movie “Rocketman” dares to portray the singer’s personality early in his career to have been, at times, “ugly,” Taron Egerton – who plays the pop star – told an audience at London’s Abbey Road Studios Friday, following a screening of 15 minutes of footage from the film. It is a candid portrayal, showing [...]

  • Ben Affleck

    Ben Affleck's Addiction Drama Set for Awards-Season Release

    Warner Bros. has given Ben Affleck’s untitled addiction drama an awards-season-friendly release date of Oct. 18. The film, which has been known previously as “The Has-Been” and “Torrance,” is directed by Gavin O’Connor and stars Affleck as a former basketball player struggling with addiction, which has led to him losing his wife. As part of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content