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.