Movie Review: “The Skyjacker’s Tale”

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You don’t hear about or see the ramifications of the “Fountain Valley massacre” when you visit St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

But there are ghosts there, if you recognize what you’re seeing.

One of the less developed islands, blacker, more segregated and “colonial” in feel, with the influx of the super rich only around the margins, disused cruise ships docks and the like, you have to know some history to get why this “paradise” feels like the Virgin Island that time forgot, or got left behind.

And that history is a bloody, almost Jamaican moment in St. Croix history. In 1972, armed bandits broke into an all-white country club, grabbed a little cash, and shot a lot of white people. The “Fountain Valley massacre,” it was called. And being an island and not a very big one, it wasn’t long before five suspects were rounded up, interrogated and convicted — sentenced to life-and-then-some prison terms.

The Canadian documentary “The Skyjacker’s Tale” tells the story of one of them, Ronald “Ronnie” LaBeet, a radicalized Vietnam War vet who, as Ishmael Muslim Ali, took over an American Airlines flight in 1984 and hijacked it to Cuba, where he lives to this day.

Perhaps only a Canadian could tell this story, or would have attempted it. It’s not just a question of travel and access to Ali/LaBeet. But the whole idea of questioning a mass murder conviction and turning out a compelling movie designed to do little more than cast doubt seems somewhat out of step with the United States these days.

Writer-director Jamie Kastner (“The Secret Disco Revolution”) tracks down those who hunted and prosecuted Ali, a survivor of the massacre and stewardesses, passengers and the pilot of the 1984 New York to Christianstad, St. Croix flight that wound up in Havana.

Kastner sets the stage for the massacre itself, recalling the exploitive, racist culture in the islands of that era. And he lets Ali have his say.

“I am a revolutionary! I am not a criminal!”

Kastner maps the journey of Ronnie LaBeet, from St. Croix boy serving in Vietnam, radicalized by the atrocities he witnessed there,.

“I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t no American,” he recalls.

He came home, became a New York Black Panther, before making his way back to St. Croix, where he was a home island hoodlum, given to robbing tourists and hiding in the rainforest hills afterward.

Naturally, he’s on any short list local authorities whip up when they’re looking for suspects.

He denies having any role in the massacre, but when authorities — Federal marshals and FBI agents among them, drag him and other men accused of the massacre back to the crime scene for “intensive” interrogation, all bets are off.

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And after a circus of a trial, with leftist gadfly William Kunstler flying down to mount a “political crime” defense, he and the others were convicted. A dozen years in brutal Federal prisons, with no hope of hearing his voice heard or his claims of a sham trial and police misconduct heard, and Ali was ready to try anything. Being transported to a prison back home was, he says, his chance.

The movie creates a lovely arc for how we think of Ali, from monster to, “Well, maybe not.” But you’re allowed to think the filmmaker is naive, tilting his story toward those on Ali’s side, buttressing a case for his humanity and justifiable skyjacking.

Still, in editing the picture, he captures Ali in a whopper of a contradiction. He says if he’d been allowed to do his time in St. Croix, he never would have tried to hijack a plane, when he was on a plane, to St. Croix, to serve his remaining time when he took this action.

There are a couple of startling revelations in this 75 minute movie, but nothing on the order of “The Thin Blue Line” and “Making a Murderer,” where we get the suggestion that others might have done the crime.

That’s the Achilles heel of this still-compelling, eye-opening film, a determination to exonerate via coerced confessions without, as Ali himself dismisses, any notion that anybody else committed the murders.

“I’m supposed to be ‘The Fugitive’? Richard Kimble or some s—, looking for the real killers?” Quite right, that’s the state’s job.

But lacking anything like the suggestion of alternative perpetrators, “The Skyjacker’s Tale” is just a lot of self-serving talk from a disarmingly charming man who says he wasn’t given justice, and who escaped the justice he was given.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, with photographs of graphic violence, profanity

Cast: Ishmael Muslim Ali, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, Michael Ratner

Credits:Written and directed by Jamie Kastner. A Strand release.

Running time: 1:15

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