The documentary “Cruel and Unusual,” directed by Vadim Jean, dives into the hellish nightmare of a trio of prisoners who were unjustly confined to solitary in Lousiana’s Angola prison; one of the three, Albert Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary before he was released on a plea bargain in 2016. Jean explored this same story in a 2014 documentary, “In the Land of the Free …” so “Cruel and Unusual” is an update of sorts, now that the tale has been resolved, if you can call it that.
“Cruel and Unusual” works on the strength of its compelling, horrifying story, and the people at the center. Robert King, another member of the “Angola 3,” released in 2001, is the film’s guide through the twisted labyrinth of prison politics.
Woodfox and Herman Wallace (who died in 2013) are represented through old photos and recorded prison phone calls, in which they describe their experiences — framed for the murder of a prison guard, organizing a chapter of the Black Panther Party inside the prison with King, and litigating for their civil rights and the rights of all incarcerated prisoners.
The film has the feel of a television news program, and at feature length lags. But the sheer overwhelming enormity of this injustice pierces through, poignantly, again and again. It’s a stark depiction of the way racism functions in concert with the criminal justice system — the ultimate tragedy of American society.
‘Cruel and Unusual’
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica