As with the best socially themed documentaries, there’s a spirit of now-ness about In the Land of the Free… that transcends all moments of cloying clumsiness and at least most of the hesitation we might feel toward the film’s polemical interpretation of hazy events. Dissecting the militant but misunderstood philosophy and ostensible tragedies of errors that led to the incarceration of Robert Hillary King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (as well as their subsequent prison guard-killing convictions and resulting Murder in the First-length tenure in solitary confinement), the film emanates a sinewy but eloquent, James Baldwin-esque anger that demands to justify its passion to an open-minded audience of civil peers. Director Vadim Jean, exercising the grotesque stamina he must have built up on the set of
Woodfox and Wallace, still under municipal lock and key, communicate via scratchy, Plutonian phone messages punctuated with less-then-subtle reminders of their cases’ urgency (“This phone call has…15….seconds remaining”), but Robert King, a semi-free man and activist courtesy of a plea bargain, acts as our tour guide through the unspeakable horrors of Angola, where, for some, day-to-day life is quite literally a choice between rape-and-beating-prone communal environments or dark, suffocatingly excrement-laden cells. And amid the condition-damning descriptions a cast of law-oriented players, including King, make a case not so much for the Angola Three’s alleged innocence—a crucial distinction—but for the manner in which their basic defendant rights were unabashedly violated in court (cross-examination of witnesses was disallowed, and fingerprinting evidence from the crime scene was never brought before the jury).
The movie properly appropriates the frustrated but mature rage of King, Woodfox, and Wallace toward the supposedly checked and balanced governmental systems that let them down; when we hear Wallace’s sibilant but solemn voice vowing to uphold the Black Panther fight as soon as he exits Angola, it provokes an eerie, dorsal chill of righteousness. But at times Jean also strangely seems to be protecting the educated intelligence of his subjects, soft-pedaling through their prison-achieved academic triumphs (Woodfox and Wallace studied law extensively and even represented other prisoners while still doing time); perhaps to shield these one-time African-American separatists from any perceived “whiteness”? Of course, the resolute focus of the documentary is not at all what the Angola Three have done, but what has been done to them—a concentration which downplays their pre-penitentiary theft charges as tendentiously as their later by-the-book “Fight the Power” aspirations. But long after the smart, case-specific rallying cries of In the Land of the Free… dissipate, we may find that the film’s structure subtly raises perennial questions about justice—and in an age where a presidential candidate can be justifiably taken to task for a tangential affiliation with an unrepentant ex-revolutionary, the overlapping distinctions between civil responsibility and criminal act become all the more intimidating.
In the Land of the Free… will play on June 16 and 17 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.