The Human Rights Festival @ The Ritzy: In The Land of The Free

The Angola prison

In The Land of The Free’  is the horrifying portrayal of one story – among the many to be told – about the injustices experienced in black America to this very day. The Angola 3 have between them spent almost a century in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s state penitentiary. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox were prisoners at the Angola prison in the 1970s, convicted for the murder of a prison guard shortly after forming one of the only Black Panther prison chapters.

Vadim Jean’s film, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, systematically presents the evidence for Herman and Albert’s innocence, revealing corruption and incompetence at almost every level of the state legal system. The key witness was bribed with cigarettes and a shortened prison sentence, while another witness was later proven to be legally blind. Herman and Albert were joined in solitary by another Black Panther member, Robert King, who was told he was under investigation for the same murder although he was not even in the prison at the time. Now, in 2010, Robert King has been released, but Herman and Albert remain in solitary confinement after more than 37 years. King’s contributions are the mainstay of the film and, fascinatingly, we also hear from Albert and Herman on recorded telephone calls from prison.

The film’s strength is in its straightforward approach to presenting damning evidence against the Louisana state, damaging enough in itself not to need any embellishment.  Vadim Jean, the director, decided to make ‘In the Land of the Free’ after the death of his friend Anita Roddick, who had campaigned for the Angola 3. “Robert King spoke at Anita’s memorial”, he remembers, “and it was like her finger was pointing at me and saying, ‘make a film’.” ‘In the Land of the Free’ has created a small stir in the UK since its premiere at The Ritzy last week; it has been reviewed by most of the major papers. Jean is excited about that fact. “As Robert King says, drop a pebble in a pond and it creates ripples. Hopefully it will create ripples in the US too”.

‘In the Land of the Free’ could be criticised for remaining firmly focused on the Angola 3 without making much broader comment about racism in America, but Jean is adament that he had to tell a personal story. “If you opened the story out, it would have been a five hour movie. For me, it is ultimately a story about the triumph of the human spirit in adversity, as much as it is also political with a small ‘p’. Cinema provides an emotional response and then hopefully draws the audience to the places where they can find the other layers.”

‘In The Land of the Free’ is showing as part of The Human Rights Watch Festival at the Ritzy. Don’t look to this year’s Oscar winners – especially not, dear God, ‘The Blind Side’ – go to one of HRW films instead. My next choice? ‘No One Knows about Persian Cats’.