The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.

1998, Movie, NR, 93 mins


A clear-eyed and sobering glimpse of life behind the many razor-wired walls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest and once the most dangerous penal institution in the U.S. Documentarians Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus spent a year profiling six of Angola's 5,000 predominantly African-American inmates, each convicted of a violent crime: Twenty-two-year-old George Crawford, sentenced to life for murder; Vincent Simmons, serving 100 years for rape; Ashanti Witherspoon, 25 years into his 75-year sentence for shooting a cop; Logan "Bones" Theriot, another lifer who murdered his wife and is now dying of lung cancer; Eugene "Bishop" Tannehill, an elderly prison preacher who's been doing time for murder since 1959; and John Brown, convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Burl Cain, Angola's affable and surprisingly candid warden, discusses the day-to-day workings of the 18,000-acre prison, which is on the site of a slave plantation. At first, the quality of life at the dreaded "Farm" seems surprisingly better than one would expect. But an almost inconceivable level of despair quickly becomes apparent. The film is full of chilling moments: Inmate orientation, at which Crawford and other new prisoners are told not expect any visitors after the first three years; the perfunctory rehearsal for Brown's execution; and Simmons' parole hearing, his first in 20 years, at which he makes a compelling request for a retrial to a parole board who've clearly decided his guilt in advance. Shot on video, the film often looks as muddy as the nearby Mississippi River, and the varying sound quality often makes it difficult to hear. But the unspoken critique that underlies this powerful film rings loud and clear: If rehabilitation is dependent upon hope, is anything good possible in Angola, where 85 percent of the men who enter will die behind its walls? leave a comment --Ken Fox

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The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.
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