In The Land of The Free
First of all, Angola, here, doesn’t refer to the ex-Portguese colony in south-central Africa, still stricken after a 27 year-long civil war. No, this is Angola, Louisiana’s State Penetentiary. Louisiana in America. You know, the one that’s basically the third world inside America with the pretty grim history of law enforcement. Secondly, the trio remain in solitary confinement, in cells in which they can barely walk, accused of a murder that even the victim’s wife thinks that they did not commit. The film’s press release put it pretty bluntly: ‘how could this be? In America. Today.’
In The Land of the Free is pretty harrowing stuff. It documents a knotted legal system in which everybody’s hands are bound – from the politicians and judges at the top to the inmates themselves incarcerated in the bowels of Angola. It chillingly captures law-enforcement practices that border on the Medieval, but still keeps a cool head, remaining largely rational in the face of a subject that could so easily be massacred by tabloid sensationalism. Indeed, Vadim makes our blood boil, tying all the loose ends of racial prejudice from slavery to the birth of the Black Panthers to its continuation as a seemingly institutional feature of the American prison system.
Now, In The Land of the Free would love to think of itself as a scale model of that knot – keeping its massive blister factor intact to provoke us into acting. But things aren’t that simple. Ultimately, we’re all too lazy, and Vadim’s film, despite its deafening rallying cry against injustice, isn’t really sure of what it wants to achieve. This is compounded quite spectacularly by the presence of Samuel L. Jackson. Yes, we have to ask: who exactly was it that made Samuel L. Jackson the spokesperson for black people as a supposedly homogeneous group? This film shows us an infuriatingly inflexible legal system that has had a ruinous effect on real peoples’ real lives. Could it not, then, do better than be narrated by someone famed for thrillingly postmodern portrayals of comically humanised Blaxploitation crooks and brittle-boned Satanic supervillians? Yeah, he’s an actor and that’s his job (and we’re pretty much OK with that), but he’s not exactly Ralph Ellison, is he?
It’s precisely Jackson’s presence, as the name brandished on the DVD cover, that makes In The Land of the Free difficult to come to terms with as a film that we’re meant to go to the DVDmart and buy. It’s a film so satisfied with its own emancipatory stance, so determined to disgust us with the sight of prejudice and injustice, that the prospect of gleefully camping outside the store is more tragic than anything else. See it, sure, because it’s certainly something to instigate plenty of ponderous dorm room discussions, but entertainment it ain’t.