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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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Hard Time (2014) from Shebafilms Kelly Saxberg on Vimeo.

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In Security from Shebafilms Kelly Saxberg on Vimeo.

Razor Wire, Prison Cells, and Black Panther Robert H. King's Life of Resistance
--An interview with filmmaker Ron Harpelle


By Angola 3 News

A new 40-minute documentary film by Canadian History Professor Ron Harpelle, entitled Hard Time, focuses on the life of Robert Hillary King, who spent 29 years in continuous solitary confinement until his conviction was overturned and he was released from Louisiana's infamous Angola State Prison in 2001.

Along with Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, Robert King is one of three Black Panther political prisoners known as the Angola 3. Last October, Herman Wallace died from liver cancer just days after being released from prison. Albert Woodfox remains in solitary confinement to do this day, with the upcoming date of April 17, 2014 marking 42 years since he was first placed there.

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When Albert Woodfox's conviction was overturned for a third time in February 2013, his release was halted because the Louisiana Attorney General immediately appealed to the US Fifth Circuit Court, despite an Amnesty International campaign calling on the AG to respect US District Court Judge James Brady's ruling and not appeal. The Amnesty campaign (take action here) is now calling for Woodfox's immediate release and last month released a new video interview with 

In March, Amnesty released a new interview with Teenie Rogers, the widow of correctional officer Brent Miller, the man who Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were wrongfully convicted of murdering. "This needs to stop, for me and my family to get closure," Rogers says. She expresses sadness that she tried but was unable to see Herman before he passed and explains: "I am speaking out now because I don't want another innocent man to die in prison."

In an email message sent out by Amnesty, Robert King said: "Teenie believes me. She believes that the Angola 3 had nothing to do with her husband's murder. She believes that Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace and I suffered years of cruel solitary confinement as innocent men...The state hasn't done justice by her, either. She's angry. We both are. Louisiana authorities are hell bent on blaming the wrong person. Well, I'm hell bent on setting him free."

Hard Time was recently shown in Canada at both the Toronto and Montreal Black Film Festivals, following Robert King's testimony in Chicago about solitary confinement at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science earlier that month. On April 20, Hard Time will be shown in Paris, with French subtitles, at the Ethnografilm Festival.

The full, 40-minute version of Hard Time can now be viewed online, along with Ron Harpelle's previous film, entitled In Security. Our interview with Harpelle is featured below.

(PHOTO: Robert King and Ron Harpelle w/ Kathleen Cleaver at the Montreal Black Film Festival. View more photos here.)
Angola 3 News:   How do the issues examined by your earlier film In Security relate to your new film, Hard Time , about Robert King, the Angola 3, and the use of solitary confinement in US prisons? How did In Security lead you to Robert King and the eventual making of Hard Time?

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Ron Harpelle:   I stumbled onto Robert King while working on In Security, a film about barbed wire. I'm a historian who happens to make documentary films and what really interests me is how things we see as a part of everyday life have evolved and shaped the society we live in. My film about barbed wire shows how a simple 19th century innovation in agriculture became a means of restraining the movements of people and a universal symbol of oppression.

Barbed wire is also known as the "Devil's Rope" and my objective was to make a film that would leave audiences thinking about the barbarism that surrounds us all the time. The film consists of a series of vignettes about barbed wire that tie the stories of dispossession, suffering and punishment together, and it is dedicated to the Angola 3. In Security covers a little more than a century of history and it ends in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola.

I contacted the prison authorities and asked if I could somehow be allowed to film in the prison. To my surprise, they wrote back immediately and welcomed me to tour the facility. This was my first time in a prison and I knew that for the purposes of my film I had hit the jackpot. I had already filmed in the West Bank, which is a big prison, and in South Africa, where they produce a razor wire with a fish hook blade that is designed to cut and catch. What I needed was something that brought the film to a conclusion and Angola is the most spectacular example of barbed wire. This is when I started to read the history of corrections in Louisiana and of Angola.

I soon discovered Robert King living in Austin and I made arrangements to meet him when I was in town on my way to film a segment of In Security at the border wall in Brownsville. I'm not sure what he thought about me, a Canadian interested in razor wire, but I really had no idea what sort of man King would be. I don't know what I expected other than someone who would be able to tell the film's viewers what it was like to be locked up in a prison for such a long time.

When I knocked on his door I was greeted by a mild mannered man living in a small house decorated with Panther paraphernalia in every corner. I had read his book and searched the internet for information about him and the A3. I really couldn't believe my luck at finding a subject like Robert King and I only hoped that he would be a good interview. In my mind I was arriving to ask a wise man to share his thoughts with me and I quickly cut to the chase by asking him to tell me about barbed wire. That's when King told me he couldn't help me with my film because, he said, "Where they kept me it was nothing but steel bars and concrete." That was the moment I realized that another film, a sort of sequel to In Security, would have to be made. Robert King didn't make it into In Security, but he also didn't end up on the cutting room floor.

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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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