July 99 Reviews: The Farm: Angola USA by Sékou

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The Farm: Angola USA by Sékou

Credits: Directed by Liz Garbus, Wilbert Rideau, and Jonathan Stack.. Produced by Liz Garbus, Gayle Gilman and Johnathan Stack..

Cast: Bernard Addison…..Narrartor (voice)

When I noticed that The Farm: Angola USA and Life (the comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence) would be running at nearly the same time, I thought it was important for blackfilm.com to run reviews of these two very different looks at life behind bars in the same issue. I didn't want to see Life. Having just watched and been moved by The Farm, I was leery of a movie that on the surface seemed, at worst, to be devoted to the glorification of life in prison and, at best, to mitigate the harsh realities found there. As anyone who's seen The Farm can tell you, life in prison is no laughing matter.

It bears noting that The Farm was co-directed by Walter Rideau, an actual inmate at Angola serving a life sentence. The documentary was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Best Documentary accolade from both the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Associations. Most notably, it was also nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary Feature. It did not win, but certainly the nomination helped The Farm to become one of the most widely acclaimed documentaries on prison life in existence.

The Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as "Angola") is the largest and most infamous prison in America. It stretches out over more than eighteen thousand acres and generates millions of dollars in revenue for the state of Louisiana. It was formerly a slave plantation dubbed "Angola" because most of the slaves brought to work there were Angolan. In a cruel twist of fate, the current prisoners still work the same land and crops that their ancestors were forced to work many years ago. This time, however, the laborers get paid-a whopping four cents per hour. Most of the prisoners sent to Angola are long-termers, meaning they will spend the vast majority of their lives in prison. In fact, a full eighty-five percent of the inmates sent to Angola will die there. Seventy-five percent of the inmates are black.

The documentary follows the lives of several inmates at Angola prison over the course of one year, giving us a very personal glimpse into the private anguish of each. It is this personal sensibility that distinguishes The Farm from other prison documentaries. You expect to hear that it's hard. You expect to hear that the conditions are deplorable. You expect to hear all the things you usually hear about prison. What you don't expect is to be drawn so fully into the lives of these men, and to care so much about their plight. Each of the men profiled in The Farm is very different, but their stories are equally compelling.

The Farm's greatest success is in establishing a personal connection between the viewer and the inmates. As a viewer, you get a true sense of the futility of the quest to be released, of the devastating loss of time, and, in some cases, the blatant racial bias. In what may be the most egregiously racist violation of a person's rights ever filmed, the parole request of Vincent Simmons, an inmate who presents a convincing evidentiary case for not having committed the crime of which he's accused, is summarily dismissed for no reason other than the unfounded conviction that he must be lying. This, after it took twenty years for the parole board to even consider his request.

By the documentary's end, you may very well have rethought your opinions about the death penalty, maximum-security prisons and the standards by which clemency is measured.

Click here to see blackfilm.com's review of Life

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