Arts Review

The Skyjacker’s Tale

The Skyjacker’s Tale featured image

The Skyjacker’s Tale
Jamie Kastner, director and script
Feature documentary starring: Ishamael Muslim Ali (formerly LaBeet)

Jamie Kastner has caught a tiger by the tail in his new doc feature, which premiered at TIFF and is playing at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Bloor Cinema this week. The Skyjacker’s Tale, the story of Ishmael Muslim Ali, is so vivid and complex that you could make a Hollywood feature out of it.

Imagine: a Vietnam vet, dishonourably discharged, takes up with the Black Panthers and starts shouting out radical rhetoric in New York before heading home to the Virgin Islands. It’s the early ‘70s and Ali, then still known as Ishmael Labeet, becomes a local drug dealer and thief before—perhaps—getting involved in a far worse criminal activity. In 1972, the “Fountain Valley Massacre” takes place, leaving eight people dead on a golf course owned by the Rockefellers, in a robbery that apparently went wrong. Or was it a revolutionary act? Labeet and several of his associates are quickly convicted in a trial that looks to have been fixed against the defendants.

OK. That’s part one.

Twelve years later, Labeet has put together a habeas corpus appeal that puts him on an American Airlines flight to St. Croix for further examination. On the flight, Labeet pulls out a gun and hijacks the plane to Cuba, where it lands on New Years Eve, 1984. Initially imprisoned by the Cubans, Ali/Labeet is eventually set free.

Kastner has incredible access to Ali, who is a happily married man and relishes telling stories about his crazy past, from childhood to the present. Besides regaling Kastner with adventurous tales, Ali makes points about how the rich white folks exploit the poor blacks in the Virgin Islands. His attitudes aren’t surprising, given that he was a black radical in the ‘60s and is only free because he’s living in Communist Cuba.

Did Labeet actually commit murders? People around him claim that the charismatic storyteller is “evil.” But were he and his friends tortured to confess to the murders in 1972? Probably so. It becomes obvious that we’ll never know for sure what happened back then.

Jamie Kastner has done a brilliant job researching Ali’s story. The skyjacked pilot and people on the airplane; defense attorneys during Ali’s trial; and old friends and enemies were interviewed for this film. Truth be told, this amazing story would likely be better told in a docu-drama, with a budget to do recreations of the “massacre” and the skyjacking. But at least Kastner got to bring The Skyjacker’s Tale to the screen—and that is an accomplishment.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

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