By Don Simpson | March 5, 2012
Director: Angad Singh Bhalla
In 1972, Herman Wallace was a few years into a 25-year sentence for bank robbery when he was accused of murdering an Angola Prison guard and thrown into solitary confinement. Prior to this event, Wallace — along with Robert King and Albert Woodfox (who were also placed in solitary after the murder of the prison guard) — had helped establish a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party. Wallace, King and Woodfox motivated prisoners to push to desegregate the prison, end systematic rape and violence, and fight for better living conditions; they also worked as jailhouse lawyers, helping prisoners file legal papers. Was the aforementioned murder a set up so that prison officials could divide and conquer the Black Panthers within Angola? We will probably never know…
One fateful day, after 30 years of solitary confinement, Wallace received a letter from a young art student, Jackie Sumell. In the letter, Sumell posed the question: “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?” At first Wallace was a little put off and confused by Sumell’s letter, but he eventually gave in; and an unlikely friendship developed as Sumell and Wallace collaborated on this cerebral art project.
With Herman’s House, director Angad Singh Bhalla documents Sumell and Wallace’s collaboration over the course of hundreds of letters and phone calls, culminating in the art installation “The House That Herman Built.” Well, it actually does not stop there. We continue to follow Sumell as she attempts to make Wallace’s dream house a reality. Sumell searches for land and funding as Wallace awaits the Louisiana court’s decision on his latest appeal; but it is hard to determine which dream is more futile — the hope that Wallace’s house will be constructed or the hope that Wallace will be moved out of solitary confinement (or, better yet, released).
Herman’s House revels in Sumell’s tenacity and Wallace’s sage-like presence. Bhalla portrays Wallace as a kind and thoughtful soul who has learned to continue living his life within the confines of his mind (since he spends 23 hours a day alone in his cramped cell). Sumell uses what she knows best — art — to free Wallace; the freedom might be metaphoric, but at least its something. While providing some intellectual and psychological support for Wallace, Sumell uses her art to educate the world about the inhumane (torturous) tactics of the United States prison system. And like the “The House That Herman Built” exhibition, Bhalla’s film also functions as an intelligent and thoughtful condemnation of the U.S. penal system. Of the 2.2 million people in jail in the U.S., more than 80,000 of those are in solitary confinement. Wallace has been in solitary confinement for over 40 years — that is longer than anyone.