Premiering today at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in North Carolina is Herman’s House, a film “that follows the unlikely friendship between a New York artist and one of America’s most famous inmates as they collaborate on an acclaimed art project.” The inmate is Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3, who on Tuesday will mark 40 years in solitary confinement in the Louisiana prison system.
The following is an excerpt from the film’s press release:
In 1972, New Orleans native Herman Joshua Wallace (b. 1941) was serving a 25-year sentence for bank robbery when he was accused of murdering an Angola Prison guard and thrown into solitary confinement. Many believed him wrongfully convicted. Appeals were made but Herman remained in jail and—to increasingly widespread outrage—in solitary. Years passed with one day much like the next. Then in 2001 Herman received a perspectiveshifting letter from a Jackie Sumell, a young art student, who posed the provocative 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?”
Thus began an inspired creative dialogue, unfolding over hundreds of letters and phone calls and yielding a multi-faceted collaborative project that includes the exhibition “The House That Herman Built.” The revelatory art installation—featuring a full-scale wooden model of Herman’s cell and detailed plans of his dream home—has brought thousands of gallery visitors around the world face-to-face with the harsh realities of the American prison system.
But as Herman’s House reveals, the exhibition is just the first step.
Their journey takes a more unpredictable turn when Herman asks Jackie to make his dream a reality. As her own finances dwindle, Jackie begins to doubt if she can meet the challenge of finding land and building a real house. Meanwhile, Herman waits to find out if the Louisiana courts will hear his latest appeal.
Along the way we meet self-confessed “stick-up kid” Michael Musser, who credits Herman for helping him turn his life around while in solitary; Herman’s sister Vickie, a loyal and tireless supporter despite her own emotional burden; and former long-term solitary inmate and fellow Black Panther activist Robert King who, along with Herman and Albert Woodfox, was one of the so-called Angola 3 that became a cause celebre in the 2000s.
“I’m not a lawyer and I’m not rich and I’m not powerful, but I’m an artist,” Jackie says. “And I knew the only way I could get [Herman] out of prison was to get him to dream.”
There are 2.2 million people in jail in the U.S. More than 80,000 of those are in solitary confinement. Herman Wallace has been there longer than anyone.
With compassion and meaningful artistry, Herman’s House takes us inside the lives and imaginations of two unforgettable characters–forging a friendship and building a dream in the struggle to end the “cruel and unusual punishment” of long-term solitary confinement.
We had an opportunity to view Herman’s House before its release and to meet its director, Angad Singh Bhalla. The filmmakers were, of course, not permitted to shoot or record inside the prison where Herman Wallace resides. Yet his voice emerges from the depths, clear and strong, through letters and recorded phone calls. The house he imagines–and Jackie Sumell builds for him–is brought to life through creative use of animation. Through the moving story of their collaboration, the film makes a powerful statement about the cruelty of solitary confinement.
For more on Herman Wallace’s case, see our earlier article on Mother Jones, “Southern Injustice.”