New Orleans native and former Black Panther activist Herman Wallace went to jail in 1967 at age 25 for a robbery he admits committing. In 1972, he was accused of the murder of a prison guard, a crime he vehemently denies, and placed in solitary confinement in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. Wallace was subsequently convicted and given a life sentence. Fellow Black Panther Albert Woodfox was also placed in solitary and then convicted of the same guard’s murder. A third Panther activist, Robert King, was placed in solitary at that time though eventually convicted of a different murder. Together the three men became famous as the “Angola Three.”
Except for a brief period, Wallace has remained in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for 40 years, and he has never stopped protesting and appealing his murder conviction. Over the years, as doubts about the men’s guilt accumulated— King was freed in 2001, and in February of this year a judge ordered the release of Woodfox— concern has also grown that Wallace and an estimated 80,000 other prisoners in the United States are being subjected to solitary confinement. In 2002, Wallace received a letter that asked an extraordinary question. Jackie Sumell, a young New York artist, wrote, “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?”
Herman’s House is a portrait of a man who won’t give up fighting for his freedom and, inevitably, a critique of a justice system that has confined him for decades in solitary— a condition that some decry as torture. The film is even more the story of an unlikely artistic collaboration that brought thousands of Americans face-to-face with the harsh reality of Wallace’s confinement and went on to change profoundly the lives of both the Louisiana prisoner and the New York artist.
Sumell’s initial query led to hundreds of letters and phone calls between her and Wallace. The first result was the art installation “The House That Herman Built,” which made its debut in Germany in 2006. It featured a full-scale wooden model of Wallace’s cell, in which gallery attendees were encouraged to spend time, and detailed plans for Wallace’s dream home, which showed that his spirit remained strong. When the show hit London in 2008, Robert King, the former Black Panther, asked Sumell if she had thought her communications with Wallace would lead to such a celebrated art project. “No way. . . . It was just a game between me and Herman . . . my way of getting Herman out of Angola.” Introducing that exhibit, she says, “I’m not a lawyer and I’m not rich and I’m not powerful, but I’m an artist . . . and I knew the only way I could get (Herman) out of prison was to get him to dream.”
But as Herman’s House recounts, the exhibition is only the first step in an unpredictable, inspiring, stressful and life-changing 12-year journey. Throughout the film, we hear audio of the phone calls between Wallace and Sumell, a riveting record of a prisoner’s remarkable resilience after decades of solitude and of a young artist’s determination to tell that man’s story. Wallace finds a new friend and new hope, expressed in his growing, imaginative engagement with his dream house. Things take a dramatic turn when Wallace asks Sumell to make his dream a reality. Against the odds and with few resources, Sumell upends her life in New York to move to New Orleans, where she starts scouting land and planning to build a real Herman’s house. The hope is that it will serve as Wallace’s home when and if he’s released, and that in any case it will be used as a center for troubled youth.
In New Orleans, Sumell finds a new life and an unexpected sense of community. She acquires her own little house, friendly neighbors and a dog. She grows close to Wallace’s sister, Vickie, who has tirelessly supported her brother’s efforts to be exonerated. But Sumell’s imaginative leap of faith begins to take its toll, with a nerve-wracking hunt for land in a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina and pressure to raise funds for the house as her own finances dwindle. She and Wallace’s supporters feel the strain of knowing that he remains locked in a cell in the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, where he sweats out the decision of the Louisiana Court of Appeals on whether to grant his last appeal.
Herman’s House is a moving account of Wallace’s unending struggle for freedom and the powerful expression it found in Sumell’s project, which began as a game and turned into an interrogation of justice and punishment in America. It is also a testament to the transformative powers of art and imagination.