Friday, June 10, 2011

In the Land of the Free...

IN THE LAND OF THE FREE…                   C+                  
USA  Great Britain  (84 mi)  2009  d:  Vadim Jean        Official site      

This kind of film is aggravating for a number of reasons, one of which is the intensity of the subject matter, which is an outrage of justice and deserves greater scrutiny than this film provides, another is the way it presents such a one-sided view of the situation, as there is no legal explanation offered to justify this kind of unusual prison treatment, and also the way the film ends without ever revealing an outcome or an update in the current state of affairs.  As is, the film’s optimistic tone at the end is entirely misleading (only verified by a Google search afterwards), suggestive of an outcome which never came to be, meaning it still remains unresolved, which the audience needs to know.  If you spoke to most people in the United States or around the world, you’d barely be aware of what impact the Black Panther Party has in the world today, as if they exist at all, they remain a fringe organization run on nickels and dimes committed to getting railroaded blacks out of jail.  But in the South, it’s a whole different story, as they are still seen through the racist hysteria of the 60’s, as if they remain committed to overthrowing the government of the United States by armed struggle.  When seen in this light, they are categorized in the Southern prison systems as such a danger to society that they are ordered segregated from the rest of the prison population, requiring them to spend their entire sentence in a 6 X 9 foot cell in solitary confinement, even as this approaches an unfathomable 4th decade, yet this is not seen as a violation of the Constitutional guarantee that prohibits “cruel or unusual punishment.”  Instead, they are treated far worse than the terrorists at Guantanamo, yet they are supposedly protected American citizens currently serving time in an 18,000-acre former slave plantation known as Angola, named for the place of origin of the original slaves who were brought there.  If this wasn’t true, one would have thought this kind of inhumane treatment was more reflective of a brutal military dictatorship known for punishing their enemies, yet it’s been going on in the state of Louisiana for the past 40 years.  

While the film is sketchy at best in describing who these men are, known as the Angola 3, Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King, all from rural Louisiana, and what led them to be incarcerated in the first place, suggesting each had a lengthy rap sheet of burglary or armed robbery, instead glossing over this as if these are relatively minor crimes.  What is known is their late 60’s and early 1970’s Black Panther affiliation, which was designed to aggressively improve the conditions of blacks in America, which in prison terms means organizing the inmates around improving prison conditions, which meant not working plantation system 17-hour days for 2 cents an hour, access to better education, improving their legal access, all of which was seen as a threat by the warden who preferred keeping things under wraps, out of sight and out of mind.  Instead the film suggests the Panthers, at the behest of the warden, were fingered by other inmates for criminal acts taking place inside the prison to justify keeping them on permanent lockdown, so instead of serving sentences for robbery, they were charged with murdering a prison guard, which lengthened their sentences considerably.  While it’s clear the lifetime-sentenced witness was promised a chance at freedom by the warden, who immediately began writing letters to the parole board recommending his release, which eventually happened, as he died a free man, it’s also clear there was no other evidence connecting these three men to the crimes.  What’s most damning, in terms of establishing prosecutory motivation and abuse, they not only charged Wallace and Woodfox with the actual murder, but even charged a fellow Black Panther who was not even in the prison at the time, once again using the old fashioned racist practice of not allowing any blacks to serve on the jury, and in another, not even allowing any women to serve.  It was the discovery of this last piece of evidence that eventually released the 3rd prisoner, Robert King, as he was ordered a new trial where he was released within an hour for lack of evidence, this after serving 31 years in solitary confinement for a crime he never committed.   
It’s King, a soft-spoken but determined man who describes the psychologically humiliating conditions designed to break the spirit of prisoners, many others of whom have attempted suicide under similar circumstances, but none have endured this prison imposed solitary confinement, which was not a part of their sentence, for such a long duration.  Anyone who can survive for 40 years suggests unusual strength and fortitude, motivated by the fact that they’ve maintained their innocence all along.  This kind of treatment is unprecedented in American history, where statistics show there are more blacks locked up in Louisiana than criminals arrested anywhere else in the world, though recent trends show a growing use of perpetual solitary confinement in American prison systems, pointing to this case as an example of its so-called “success.”  How can racism be so entrenched in the penal system in the South that blacks continue to be treated as little more than chattel slaves, as if the Confederacy won the Civil War?  Despite this horrendous practice, there appears to be no redress, as the majority Republican politics in Louisiana proudly wave their incarceration record around like red meat to their voters, as race-based politics have never been more divisive.  In 2010, when a Federal District Court of Appeals ordered Woodfox’s sentence to be vacated, claiming grounds of prejudice, King, the lawyers, the inmate’s families, and others were expecting them both to be released, which is when the film ends, expecting victory, but that day never arrived, as the Louisiana Attorney General “Buddy” Caldwell opposed the release and appealed the decision, where he eventually prevailed in a 2-1 decision, even as the jury foreman serving on the grand jury that indicted him, who eventually wrote a book upholding the original conviction, was also married to the warden at the time.  According to the current warden, Burl Cain, when receiving the news, he still maintains these are extremely dangerous men, likening the Black Panthers to the Klu Klux Klan, suggesting its members will always be a menace to society by virtue of their political beliefs, claiming “there’s been no rehabilitation…(from their) Black Panther revolutionary acts.”

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