On an unseasonably cold morning last May, my friend Mike called me from a highway in New Jersey. I drove out to Bordentown, parked at a motel, and jogged alongside him on Route 130’s shoulder. He rode a bike without the flat part of the pedals. He was wobbling.
“I haven’t ridden a bike in 30 years,” Mike said. “I’m not really prepared.”
It wasn’t just inexperience. He was wearing a stuffed rucksack with bolts of canvas sticking out of the top. Mike is Michael “O.G. Law” Ta’Bon, a political performance artist—he prefers the term revo-solutionary—known for wearing a jail-suit and shackles everywhere he goes. This was the second day of a planned 1,200-mile journey from Philadelphia to New York to Memphis, a three month trip away from his family. On the canvas bolts were partially completed portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. O.G. wanted to finish each portrait on the site of the subject’s assassination.
The purpose was to raise money for a youth center back in Germantown, a historic building in the midst of foreclosure litigation with a Florida-based debt collector. But why the journey?
“When I’m in pain, people donate,” O.G. says.
When The Citizen first wrote about O.G. last February, he was starting his annual month long “Deathfast,” sleeping outside in a mock prison cell to raise awareness of the birth to prison pipeline for so many. Out of prison himself for 11 years, he is on a mission of love, to change the world for young black men like he once was—like his son will one day be. It’s a mission that’s fraught with the perils of his own humanity.
That tension of heroism and self-destruction and of family versus calling drives Fight Hate With Love, a documentary film that follows O.G. Law for two years. The film, the first feature-length doc by film studio MediaStorm—which earlier this year put out Neighborhood Film Project’s The Cage—and documentarian Andrew Michael Ellis, debuted in Philadelphia at the Prince Theater on November 9th. Starting December 14, you can stream or buy the film here.
The film opens with O.G. in Union Square in Manhattan. He raises an impromptu jail cell and performs his music. His wife Gwen Jackson works the crowd, and her son Sir Rahn, a boy in cornrows who comes up to Mike’s waist, takes the mic to deliver the hook. Mike’s once estranged father, Malik Ta’Bon, is also there. He helped set up and now watches. It’s a bright day. Mike is happy, healthy and intense. His family is there.
Meanwhile, Malik tells us that he missed Mike’s childhood, that he was in prison for attempted murder, and returned to his son as an addict. Having nothing else to teach him, he taught his son crime and addiction, Malik says.
“I think I damaged him and that’s why he ended up doing so many years in prison,” Malik says, his voice dense with guilt and sorrow. Whether Mike can overcome this damage, the damage of his childhood and his own incarceration, with all the insidious practical and psychological wounds, whether he can be truly heroic and not self-destruct, is the struggle of Fight Hate With Love.
At stake is Sir Rahn, a sunny, whip-smart little kid. He brims with love for Mike and the world. The pair travel to Alabama for the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. The journey is nearly fatal.
O.G. never made it to Tennessee because, thank God, his partner prevailed on him to abandon the plan. She’s the mother to his baby girl and they have another child on the way. So, O.G. rode into New York, completed the portrait of Malcolm X, affixing the canvas to a bus shelter—the drawing filled with light through the glass and gathered a crowd, a beautiful scene that he captured on his Facebook page—and returned to Philadelphia.
Which is not to say that things have gone well. The Florida-based debt collector got the property in Germantown, and Mike and his family are now homeless. They float between friends’ living rooms and, when they get the money, the occasional motel. (He has a GoFundMe page where he accepts donations.)
His is not a story of easy success, or maybe success at all. It doesn’t fit the neat progressive narrative of redemption and recovery. It is, instead, a story of trying—and often failing—to be an artist, activist, father and provider. It is real life, in all its struggles and hopes, something the film captures. No, leaving prison with best intentions is not enough sometimes to make a success of it. The path to redemption is a painful one.
In creating Fight Hate With Love, Andrew Michael Ellis takes a long look into that pain.
“I wanted to find light,” Ellis tells me by phone. “I wanted to find a hero, but I kept finding more darkness and more complexity.” Ellis sighs, then adds, “But maybe that’s truer to the situation.”
We talked about O.G. and what it’s like to be with someone who at once uplifts and frustrates. “There were times when I wanted to tell him to shut up and wake up,” Ellis says. “But there were times when I wanted him to tell me everything he knows.”
I ask something I hope will be easier to answer: What was it like to spend two years filming O.G. Law? Ellis laughs and answers with what serves as an apt description for the film: “It was hard, fun, heart-wrenching, devastating, and inspiring.”
I caught up with O.G. in the basement of an apartment building. We sat by the coin-op washers and talked about the film.
“The whole thing was hard to watch,” he said. “But God’s people love the truth.”
“Do you want Sir Rahn to see it?” I asked him.
O.G. nodded. “I just want him to not forget me.”
There’s no doubt that O.G. has a great and burning heart. His love for the world has driven him to march 50 miles with a ball and chain around his neck, to sleep well over a hundred winter nights in an open air prison cell, hoping to call our minds to the suffering behind bars and to keep the endangered free. He does this because in prison, when he was close to suicide, God told him, fight hate with love.
“Better yet: Fight Satan with God,” Mike says. “Fight Shaytan with Allah. That don’t sound so pretty.”
He clings to this mission. Somewhere in him, the passion for it fuses with pain.