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Razor Wire, Prison Cells, and Black Panther Robert H. King’s Life of Resistance --An interview w/ filmmaker Ron Harpel

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I use the present tense because I was with King in New Orleans to show Hard Time and after the film a man stood up and said: "You maybe don't remember me, but 35 years ago I was in CCR with Herman, Albert and you, and you saved my life. I spent three years in solitary and you taught me how to survive. When I got out of solitary I turned my anger into something positive, I did my time, and I am here today to thank you." I should also add that there were maybe 30 men in the room and judging from what I heard, as a group they had spent a total of about 600 years in Angola. That's 600 years of labor, 600 years of suffering, 600 years of lost opportunity for humanity.

Albert's 42 years are easy to focus on, but there are 2.5 million men and women in prison in the United States on any given day. Every year that's 2.5 million years of contributions to society that are lost. Not all of these people can contribute more than they cost society, but most of them can and it is incumbent on the authorities in Louisiana and elsewhere to see them as more than just an alternative to slave labor.

A3N:    What message do you hope that viewers of Hard Time will walk away with after seeing your film?

RH:    The message of hope is, as King says, "just put one foot in front of the other and you will get there." That's what the struggle for human rights and social justice is.

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I think that when viewers meet Robert King and find out how he overcame the most incredible obstacles to become the man he is, they can look around at their own situation and see how many options there really are that will allow them to make a better life for themselves and for all the rest of us. There is a message of hope in his story and it is for anyone who dreams of a better future and is willing to pitch in to make it happen.

I think that most people who see the film or, better yet, meet King, come away with admiration and inspiration. This is the King effect. How can anyone really complain about their lot in life after hearing about what Robert King endured, how he succeeded in conquering a mountain of injustice and how he now spends just about every waking moment working to benefit those left behind and all those victims of injustice somewhere in the world that he will never know?

Hard Time is a story about a man who is making a difference.

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A3N:    As you have interacted with the audience at recent screenings in Montreal, Toronto, and beyond, how has Hard Time been received?

RH:    It is a strange thing to have the subject of your film with you and ready to answer questions after the screening. They never line up to talk to me, but they certainly line up to meet King. He must be tagged in hundreds of photos on Facebook and I've seen blogs and other post-screening media that illustrate the power of his presence and message.

Let's also remember that there is a difference in Canada. Most of the members of the audience are either West Indians or Africans, or their Canadian offspring. Canada was not a prime destination for slaves and our immigration laws only opened up in the 1950s. The Underground Railroad brought more runaway slaves to Canada than slavery brought slaves. Our racism is focused differently.

Our host for the events in both Toronto and Montreal was a prominent Haitian woman and Haitians freed themselves from slavery in 1804. What this means is that the majority of the people in the audience had lived experiences that are very different from those of Robert King. Their reality in a city like Toronto or Montreal is different from that of people living in places like Louisiana. These are people with their own civil rights heroes but they can identify with the themes and stories in Hard Time.

Another side of this is the Montreal media experience. Robert King was featured in the most important newspapers and on a television show called Tout le monde en parle. The title means "everyone is talking about it," and his 15 minute interview was alongside leading Quebec celebrities, including Justin Trudeau, a man who may well be our next Prime Minister. This was the royal treatment in a province that hates royalty. They even cracked open a bottle of wine,  toasted King on national television and gave him a standing ovation. Over a million viewers heard him answer questions and thousands more watched it online.

King was also a guest on the Prison Radio Show at McGill University and a few other media outlets. Not only that, but the Montreal screening was introduced by the U.S. Consul General to Montreal.

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All of this media attention adds up in the internet universe and helps draw attention to Albert Woodfox and the system that puts millions of people behind bars.

A3N:    In Hard Time, King reflects on the early formation of his political consciousness leading up to joining the Black Panther Party: "After getting 35 years"I began to feel that I owed no more obligation to the system... I had no moral obligation to a system that was designed to oppress and to oppress certain people"I began to look at that which was legal and that which was moral".Slavery was legal but just because it was legal did not mean that it was morally right." 

As a filmmaker, how do you think films and other forms of activist-oriented media can be used to affect similar changes in people's consciousness, like the metamorphosis described by King? Did you style your film in any particular way, so as to affect this type of consciousness change in the audience?

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Over 40 years ago in Louisiana, 3 young black men were silenced for trying to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation called Angola. In 1972 and (more...)

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