The 14th Human Rights Watch International Film Festival runs until Friday, and there are tickets still available for the European premiere this week of one of the festival’s highlights. In the Land of the Free… is a chastening documentary about Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King, known collectively as the Angola 3 after the prison where they have spent, between them, almost a century in solitary confinement for a murder that all evidence suggests they did not commit.
The victim was a prison guard, Brent Miller, who in 1972 was stabbed 32 times inside Angola, the Louisiana state penitentiary. Wallace and Woodfox were already in prison for other offences, and were placed at the scene of the crime by an eyewitness who later turned out to be not only legally blind and beset by mental problems, but to have been promised by the authorities a weekly carton of cigarettes, as well as early release, in exchange for testifying. The testimony of that witness became the lynchpin of the prosecution case; for those determined to prolong the men’s incarceration, it still is.
But if Wallace and Woodfox did not kill Brent Miller, why were they fingered for the crime? The probable answer lies in their allegiance to a prison arm of the Black Panther Party established shortly before the murder. So comprehensive was the campaign to crush the Panthers that Miller’s murder was declared a conspiracy. That’s where Robert King came in — literally. Despite having been serving time in another prison 150 miles away, King was brought to Angola and consigned to solitary along with Wallace and Woodfox. Well, he was an active member of the Black Panthers, and must therefore have been instrumental in the conspiracy. During his first year at Angola, he was falsely convicted of murdering another prisoner. At his trial, where the jury was exclusively white and the witnesses wildly unreliable, King’s mouth was sealed with duct tape.
If there is a point at which a typical viewer of In the Land of the Free… will cry out, “What next?” then that is probably it. The film can only be watched in a state of horrified incredulity. King was released in 2001, but Wallace and Woodfox are currently approaching their 38th consecutive year of being held in solitary at Louisiana state penitentiary. I say consecutive, but as the film points out, there have been occasional interruptions in the prisoners’ routine. These breaks, which take place in an area of the prison known as “the dungeon”, tend to discredit the idea that a change is as good as a rest.
It’s fortunate that Wallace and Woodfox have some effective cheerleaders on their side. One was the late Anita Roddick, who campaigned for the men’s release; the film is dedicated to her. Another is King, who has managed against the odds to hold on to his sanity. The director Vadim Jean should now be included alongside the campaigners. His film is blunt, lucid and angry. Celebrity narration is present and correct — in this case, Samuel L Jackson — but the most potent charge comes from two other men heard in voice only: Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, speaking to us down an imperfect prison phone-line.
“In the Land of the Free…” screens in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival on 24 and 25 March, followed by panel discussions, before going on release on 26 March. Details here.
Ryan Gilbey blogs every Tuesday for Cultural Capital. He is also the New Statesman’s film critic.