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‘Cruel And Unusual’ Director: The Story Of The ‘Angola 3’ Is Triumph Of Human Spirit

The “Angola 3” spent more time in solitary confinement than any other incarcerated individuals in the United States, and now, a documentary telling their story will soon be released.

Director Vadim Jean is raising funds so the film, “Cruel and Unusual,” can be screened in New York and Los Angeles and qualify for Oscar consideration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (The project must reach its goal on Kickstarter by May 11.)

Robert King, Herman Wallace, and Albert Woodfox were incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary when a corrections officer was killed in April 1972. As members of the Black Panther Party in prison, they were targeted for their political activism, accused of the murder, and put in solitary confinement.

For 29 years, King was in solitary until his conviction was overturned, and he was released in 2001.

Wallace was in solitary confinement for 41 years. He had advanced liver cancer when a district court judge threatened to hold the state in contempt and ordered authorities to release Wallace to a hospital. He died three days after his release on October 4, 2013.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary finally released Woodfox in 2016. He was in solitary confinement for 43 years, and his conviction for second-degree murder was overturned three times.

Jean started filming “Cruel and Unusual” seven years after King’s release.

“[King] was an amazing storyteller for me from the very beginning,” Jean told Shadowproof. “He is an amazing human being, who has dedicated his life since 2001 to seeing the release of his comrades.”

“I have never seen a friendship quite like that ever before. The bond between he and Albert now is something to behold. It shines like a beacon of friendship and commitment like nothing I have seen before. So, Robert has supported the making of this film right from the beginning, and he describes it as having dropped like a stone in water, creating ripples of justice.”

Jean considers this statement to be an honor and believes it shows how receptive he has been participating in the film.

Cover for the documentary, "Cruel And Unusual"

Cover for the documentary, “Cruel And Unusual”

Angola prison authorities prohibited Jean from entering the penitentiary to meet Wallace. He was unable to talk to Wallace until five years after filming started and he was moved to Hunt prison.

“I only met him once on a visit. It was an amazing time with a remarkable man which I will never forget,” Jean recalled. “His gratitude for having started to tell the story was amazingly gracious.”

Jean made a campaign film, “In the Land of the Free…”, which was supposed to call attention to the continued imprisonment of Wallace and Woodfox. After that film’s release, they both received “thousands and thousands of letters” from people who saw the film. Both thanked Jean.

When Jean finally met Woodfox in February 2016 following his release, “it was an emotional moment.” He spent many months in editing rooms with each of the “Angola 3” for eight years and felt like he knew them well. Woodfox was no exception.

“He is so full of grace and strength and generosity,” Jean shared. “For me, it was as if he was already a friend. Both he and Robert have graciously and kindly supported the making of ‘Cruel and Unusual.'”

Asked how the project has shaped his views on incarceration in the United States, Jean responded, “America is an amazing country, but it has both the best of the best and the worst of the worst.  The best movie industry in the world for example.” But he added it has “one of the worst penal systems in the world.”

“Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. With 2.4 million of the U.S. population in prison at any point (nearly 1%), it is hard to square this with the fact that it is supposed to be a developed civilized country.”

Jean continued, “Beyond the sheer numbers, what has become clear to me is that individual prisons are under-regulated in their treatment of prisoners. That Angola was allowed to keep the ‘Angola 3’ in six foot by nine foot boxes, in Albert’s case for 43 years, without properly following guidelines on the review of that treatment every 90 days, is a disgrace. This overuse of long term solitary is an all too common practice in U.S. prisons, and there is no federal legislation to regulate this kind of treatment.”

“It is cruel and unusual, and that must change for the U.S. to be able to stand by its proud history of values, such as justice and liberty. The great Constitution indeed forbids cruel and unusual punishment. And if any treatment can be called that, it is the decades-long treatment of the ‘Angola 3’ in solitary confinement.”

Jean is a British filmmaker, who is known for “Hogfather,” “The Color of Magic,” and “Leon the Pig Farmer.” He typically produces scripted work and never expected to work on a feature documentary for eight years. But that is a testament to the human spirit of the “Angola 3” and their triumph over gross injustice.

“Robert King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace are heroes to me. And in the end, I am a storyteller,” Jean stated.

He continued, “I realized relatively recently that I have always been enraged by injustice and it’s probably that which has motivated my commitment to telling their story. But as I write, I’m in the middle of shooting my third TV comedy series in the last 15 months, and I haven’t lost my other passion as a filmmaker, which is to give people the pleasure of laughter.”

“‘Make ‘em laugh’ was where I began and continue to be most of the time. But ‘make ‘em cry’ is the other great emotion of the cinema for me.”

Jean hopes the film will move people to tears, and with those tears, they might attempt to “do something” to make a difference. He also hopes the film draws even more attention to the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and spurs even more laws that bring an end to this barbaric practice.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."