“Herman’s House” chronicles the unlikely friendship of Jackie Sumell, a politically engaged New York artist, and Herman Wallace, a convicted murderer in his early 70s who has spent most of the past four decades in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. Although this documentary has a powerful political subtext, it is best described as a conceptual art piece about confinement, attached to a dual biography of the artist and the prisoner.
Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert King, nicknamed the Angola Three, were convicted of the stabbing death of a 23-year-old prison guard in 1972. Wallace had already served five years of a 25-year sentence for bank robbery. And all three belonged to a Black Panther chapter begun in Angola the year before.
The film, written and directed by Angad Bhalla, is not an impassioned defense of Wallace, whose appeals have been rejected and who remains in prison. It barely skims the details of the case. The filmmakers simply assume that the convictions were based on flimsy evidence.
Sumell befriended Wallace through letters and telephone conversations that are heard in the film. She asks him to describe his “dream house,” her theory being that only by dreaming of freedom can Wallace achieve it. Based on his instructions, she created a wooden reproduction of his 6- by 9-foot cell and then a scale model of the house, complete with swimming pool and surrounding flower gardens.
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Her model became an art installation, “The House That Herman Built,” exhibited in 12 galleries in five countries. Sumell subsequently decided to raise money to build a youth community center in New Orleans modeled after the house, but developers swept in and snatched the property.
Wallace is never shown in the film, but in the recorded conversations with Sumell, the voice of a man who says, “art is not my thing,” grounds this eccentric, often poignant film in an attitude of common sense and stoicism.