In the Land of the Free, directed by Vadim Jean

In the Land of the Free, directed by Vadim Jean

This new documentary about the Angola 3, the longest-serving US political prisoners, offers a compelling case but avoids tackling wider ramifications.

Extreme Divide and Rule. Television review – Tom Jennings
Unexpectedly appearing on April 24th on otherwise forgettable cable channel Yesterday, In the Land of the Free chronicles the case of the Angola 3, locked down in Louisiana’s State Penitentiary – named after the African origin of those working the site in its previous, more explicit, role as slave plantation. Robert King (released in 2001 after reluctantly pleading to a lesser charge) [1] and Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace (still inside) are among America’s longest-serving political prisoners of the many framed and railroaded into solitary confinement during the 1960s/70s heyday of the FBI’s COINTELPRO persecution of homegrown revolutionaries – here members of the Black Panthers. Also surprisingly, the film’s British director is Vadim Jean, previously known for tiresome quirky comedies – with little to amuse here – inspired into agitprop by the late Bodyshop founder Anita Roddick’s crusading campaign. His effort outlines the historical details of these former repeat petty offenders radicalised inside brutal jail regimes by the organisational nous and principled determination of the Panthers – only to be stitched up by the blatant falsification of witness evidence for conspiring to murder young guard Brent Miller in 1972, during a riot which interrupted agitation against Angola’s infamously inhuman institutional corruption.
Even the original murder victim’s widow has long been convinced of the 3’s complete innocence – the weight of incrimination conclusively proving the vindictive dishonesty of US criminal ‘justice’ as well as the ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ of decades in solitary for its targets. That Woodfox and Wallace still languish in incarceration speaks volumes about the State’s evaporating legitimacy, if its supposed divine right to sovereign domination can be so thoroughly exposed as transparently arbitrary irrespective of any relationship to truth. Sadly Jean bungles the handling of the wider issues which inevitably arise, despite featuring esteemed talking heads like Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky and rappers Snoop Dogg and Mos Def [2]. Instead the soundtrack’s swelling crescendoes and narrative narrowing – to highlight King, Woodfox and Wallace’s courage, intelligence and dignity as well as innocence counterposed to their harrowing experience – derails attention to the congenital faultlines of democracy’s ‘land of the free’. The upshot confusingly conflates this specific travesty as, on the one hand, evoking social upheavals of the past and, on the other, an exception rather than the rule of law. Thus comparable ongoing examples, like Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement and Mumia Abu-Jamal and the MOVE organisation [3], make sense mainly as further aberrations in a presumably still-perfectible system – rather than the tip of the iceberg we, and they, recognise. And even if recent attempted legal lynchings (like the Jena 6 – also, incidentally, in Louisiana) face greater obstacles from seasoned and savvy concerned citizens, the underlying rotten logic can still escape focus – in exactly the manner that liberal radicalism always stops short, to maintain its privileged status, of envisaging the deeper transformations required to avoid such abuse.
Notes
1. See From the Bottom of the Heap: The Autobiography of Robert Hillary King, PM Press, 2009.
2. Previous docu The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation (dir. Jimmy O’Halligan, 2006) fares better in this regard.
3. Subjects of In Prison My Whole Life (dir. Marc Evans, 2008; itself based largely on Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt? dir. John Edginton, 1997); and MOVE (dirs. Ben Garry and Ryan McKenna, 2004; see Freedom, 28th July 2007).
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 11, June 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk