‘The Skyjacker’s Tale’ Tracks Down a Fugitive in Cuba

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A review by Ben Kenigsberg for the New York Times.

While it falls somewhere short of being a great documentary, “The Skyjacker’s Tale” may have one of the great documentary gets. It tells the story of Ishmael Muslim Ali, who in 1973, when he was called Ishmael LaBeet, was convicted along with four other men of murdering eight people in a shooting at the Fountain Valley Golf Course in St. Croix, V.I., in 1972. Whether the crime was a botched robbery or an episode of racially motivated violence is the subject of debate. (Seven of the eight victims were white and all five suspects were black.)

Incredibly, that’s only the beginning of Mr. Ali’s story: On New Year’s Eve in 1984, as he was being transferred from a court in the Virgin Islands back to prison on an American Airlines flight, he hijacked the plane and redirected it to Cuba, where he has lived ever since. (It is not clear how long he will remain, given the changing United States relationship with Havana.)

The film, directed by Jamie Kastner, comes billed as having the first interview Mr. Ali has given since that escape. He turns out to be a charismatic and contradictory camera subject. He recounts his experiences in Vietnam, from which he received a dishonorable discharge, and his involvement with the Black Panthers. While admitting he’s no angel, he says he was railroaded in the Fountain Valley case. (Mr. Kastner offers some support for the defense’s argument that the convicts’ confessions resulted from torture.)

Notwithstanding Mr. Ali’s account, the most surreal interviews come from the passengers and crew of the flight, who today seem oddly admiring of their hijacker. “The Skyjacker’s Tale” could stand to lose its gimmicky re-enactments. Why supplement a story this crazy?

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