DVD Releases: ‘In the Land of the Free’

In the Land of the Free (2010) documents the experiences of Robert King, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, who were imprisoned in the 1970s for petty offences that they may not have comitted. Following their incarceration. each of the men became actively involved with the Black Panther Party (BPP). The BPP campaigned, sometimes violently, for further equality and rights for African Americans and did whatever they had to do to make their voices heard.

As a result, probably out of fear of political upheaval, J Edgar Hoover referred to them as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the USA”. Based on evidence of the treatment and subjugation of African American people during this period, it is fair to say that such a statement would have cascaded its way down through society and added fuel to the already blazing fire of racial prejudice in the USA at that time.

The real injustice began, following the stabbing and death of prison guard Brent Miller in 1971. Almost immediately Woodfox and Wallace were charged and found guilty of his murder, based upon what is now widely regarded as a poor witness testimony. Each man had his sentence extended indefinitely with the extra ruling that he would remain in solitary confinement, a provision that followed no real precedent.

As for King, governors and prison officials felt that his connections to the Black Panther Party linked him with the death of Brent Miller and as a result, he was moved from Louisiana State penitentiary to Angola, where he too faced indefinite imprisonment spent in solitary confinement. If these men are innocent of the crimes alleged against them, then In the Land of the Free documents the biggest infringement of civil liberties and human rights in the history of the United States.

In the Land of the Free begins with an unknown voice that accompanies the opening shots of the film saying: “You don’t cry the tears. You don’t cry literally. The soul cries. It’s kind of hard to describe when the soul cries. It’s a deep, deep agony you know?” These are the words of Robert King and they are resonant throughout the whole documentary as it asks us to recognise the diabolical abuse of human rights endured by these men. King’s evocative and pained words set the tone for the film and instantly our sympathies are with him, Woodfox and Wallace.

Along with the painful accounts of confinement, persecution and isolation, there is a reflective choice of music used in the film, from emblematic African American artists like Curtis Mayfield. Such music reflects the discontent and disenchantment of the black community in late 1960’s and 1970’s America and reasserts the efforts being made by the African American community to make their voices heard in a period of institutionalised white oppression.

During the film, Congressman John Conyers points out that the American Bill of Rights states that “no cruel and unusual punishments” should be imposed upon a person. The documentation of the circumstances and punishments endured by the Angola three asks us to acknowledge that very little in the way of equality and human rights was considered during the trials, sentencing, and incarceration of these men, and instead a weight of prejudice informed the archaic treatment that they have suffered ever since.
To highlight the unique story of these men, the film repeatedly reminds us of the determination and resolve that these men maintain after nearly forty years in solitary confinement, but it is their coherence, poise and semblance that serve as the most striking aspect of this audio; how can a human being be caged for two thirds of his or her life and remain sane? This question alone is fascinating enough to keep our attention throughout.

Another important aspect of this film is the lending of Samuel L Jackson’s voice, giving it added persuasive clout. Jackson has established himself as a proud African American male actor, making no secret of his political and societal views. As a young black male he was involved in the Civil Rights movement, and at 39 he became involved with politically like-minded director Spike Lee, playing ‘Leeds’ in School Daze (1987) and ‘Mister Senior Love Daddy’ in Do the Right Thing (1989). His voice is recognisable and brings with it the weight of Hollywood fame, putting the case of the Angola three in the spotlight of contemporary media culture.

In the Land of the Free records the ongoing struggle of the Angola three whilst conveying the determination of the men through its presentation of recorded conversations and archive footage. This perfect juxtaposition provides us with a considerate portrayal of the true meaning of perseverance and how the human mind works when it is oppressed and downtrodden, and for that reason it is as unforgettable as the men it documents.

Russell Cook