Someone once told me that the key to a good documentary is access. I somehow decided to make a film where I had no access to one of my main subjects, Herman Wallace, or to my primary location, his prison cell. My naïveté as a first-time filmmaker protected me from conventional wisdom, but early on I realized that the whole idea of access would be crucial to the story of a man who has now spent more than four decades in solitary confinement.
In another sense, it was having access that led me to this story. I befriended artist Jackie Sumell while we were painting protest signs against the impending Iraq War when I was in college. When she first explained her collaborative art project with Herman Wallace, it seemed interesting to me. But only later, when I read a book composed of letters they’d written over the years as they went back and forth on what Herman’s dream home should look like, did I discover that their powerful exhibit, “The House That Herman Built,” was just the beginning of the story.
When I began telling people that I was making a film about a man who has been held in solitary confinement in Louisiana state prisons since 1972, their response was almost invariably “How is that possible?” And then “What did he do?” The first question always intrigued me much more. There are courts and judges and wardens who have all facilitated Herman’s residence in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for 40 years, but they aren’t the root cause of his incarceration.
Herman Wallace is one of an estimated 80,000 people being held in solitary confinement in the United States at this moment. So it would be too simple to say that some travesty of justice has made this possible. I do believe that the case of Herman and the Angola Three represents a particular travesty: three Black Panther activists targeted and framed to quash their dissent. But more than anything, Herman’s conditions of confinement are a reflection of America’s ongoing addiction to punishment and incarceration.
Herman and Jackie’s art project beautifully illustrates the contradiction embodied by a country that prides itself on being a land of dreams and opportunity while actually incarcerating more of its own citizens than any other nation on earth. The film begins to answer the question of how this is possible. For a society to abuse such a large segment of its population, it must first dehumanize them. Undocumented workers must become “illegals,” middle-class union workers must become “thugs” and people in prisons must become “convicts.”
Herman’s House is an effort to re-humanize at least one person behind bars: Herman Wallace. He is a brother, a mentor, an artistic collaborator and, most importantly for Jackie Sumell, a friend. Their art project creates a safe space for us to examine the racial and class divisions that underlie American justice. My hope is that once we acknowledge that we have been caging at least one human being for decades on end, we can start recognizing the humanity of the other 2.3 million Americans behind bars and break our addiction to punishment.
—Angad Singh Bhalla, Writer/Director