In The Land of the Free is a documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, which tells the story of three inmates of the Angola prison in Louisiana. These three inmates, dubbed the ‘Angola 3’, between them, have served over a century in solitary confinement in what seems to be extremely controversial circumstances.
The three of them were initially incarcerated for small-time crimes. It was only after they became involved with the Black Panther movement whilst in the jail that they started to fall down a slippery slope of injustice and flimsy judicial practice. Robert King, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were all sent to the Louisiana prison in the 1970’s for a mixture of crimes ranging from robbery to civil unrest. After serving a portion of their original sentences, an organised murder of one of the prison guards occurred. These inmates were subsequently put in the frame by certain witnesses in the prison for this murder, and the three of them were all tried in a court that was hardly representative of their race or creed, along with the fact that the key witnesses in the trial were deemed to not be psychologically fit to provide evidence in any case, let alone one of such grand importance. The ‘Angola 3’ were then charged with the murder of this prison guard and sent down to solitary confinement section of the prison where they lived in cells that were 6 by 9 by 12 feet, in truly dire conditions, for decades.
What this documentary attempts to do and succeeds with, is to bring awareness to this kind of atrocity that goes on in a modern society. Through speaking to those involved and highlighting how bad the conditions were, we are shown how harsh and warped their punishment was and still is after over thirty years. What the director tries to push forward is the perceived feeling that the ‘Angola 3’s’ membership of the Black Panthers is the main attributing factor towards the level of punishment they have received. It is said that witnesses accounts and court testimonies were fabricated to imply that these Panther movement pushers in the prison were the murderers of the prison guard in question, therein getting them ‘out of the way’ in terms of their influence within the Angola prison.
The film itself is wonderfully presented. As the viewer, you build up a heartfelt affinity with these three inmates, and with the segment that recalls the release of King it creates a very emotional atmosphere and you feel extremely happy for him, as well as experiencing sadness at the same time, for the huge part of his life that he has lost and for the other two who are still in the prison. It is very saddening to hear the audio snippets, taken from prison phone call recordings, of Woodfox and Wallace, speaking of the things that drive them on from day to day and what they want to do when they are released. Knowing that those two are still in prison, battling against a distorted system of justice, is truly heartbreaking.
This film is fundamentally trying to achieve the distribution of this message of the wrong-doings of particular US states penitentiary systems. The director Vdaim Jean has chosen to utilise the wide reaching medium of film in order to spread the sentiment of injustice, to not only aid in the quest to free the remaining two of the three, but to also as a preventative measure. Jean understands the importance of laying foundations to stop these kinds of dictatorial and twisted forms of punishment happening again and again. Samuel L. Jacksons input on the narrative side certainly helps bring clout to the message being conveyed in this film, and I’m sure will help extend its reach to a more varied audience.
The film is a beautiful and well-balanced portrayal of the immense struggle of the ‘Angola 3′. Although it is obvious to the viewer what kind of conclusion you should be making about who is in the wrong here, the director does well to present the case in an even fashion, with interviews from either side of the fence. What we end up with is an experience from which we can form our own judgment, drawing from the evidence that we see throughout, a virtue that seems to have prevented the ‘Angola 3’ from enjoying the virtue of freedom for many precious years of their lives.