Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010

'In the Land of the Free'

by Chris Barsanti

15 June 2010

That Angola prison is nowhere you'd want to be comes through clearly in Vadim Jean's film about three possibly innocent prisoners there – but why precisely they should be set free is blurrier.
 

In the Land of the Free

Director: Vadim Jean

Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King were all prisoners in Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Penitentiary in 1972, when they were convicted of murdering prison guard Brad Miller. Afterward they were thrown into solitary confinement where the three had, by the time this film was made, spent a total of one hundred years. The three had been in for smaller crimes, robbery and the like, but because of their involvement with the nascent Black Panther Party and subsequent agitating for better conditions at the prison, they were seen as good candidates for the murder.

Vadim Jean’s vividly directed film makes the argument that not only were Wallace, Woodfox, and King (the so-called “Angola 3”) all framed for the guard’s murder, but that their time in solitary confinement constitutes one of the most clear violations of the Constitution’s proscription against “cruel and unusual punishment” as can be found in modern America. It’s a handsomely done work, with great footage of Angola – presented as a corrupted cesspool of systematic degradation and corruption – in decades past backgrounded by a stellar classic funk soundtrack and forceful narration by Samuel L. Jackson.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Jean fails to make a stronger case for the Angola 3’s innocence. His documentation of the horrors of Angola in general and solitary confinement in particular are powerful enough and nearly inarguable, and his recounting of Robert King’s arduous legal fight for release is dutifully handled. But while Jean sows plenty of doubt about Wallace and Woodfox’s guilt, he never lands that final, necessary, and critical blow.

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