Herman’s House: Crime, Punishment, and Art

Herman’s House

Runs Fri., June 7–Thurs., June 13 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 81 minutes.

Artist Jackie Sumell had a neat idea: If the man who may be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States could design his dream home, what would it look like? Herman Wallace has been in solitary in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for some 40 years, put there after being convicted of killing a prison guard—wrongfully, he says—during a prior sentence for bank robbery. Over a crackling phone line from behind the prison walls, Wallace narrates: He’d like flowers in the front, so visitors would feel welcomed. He’d like mirrored ceilings in his bedroom. And he’d like a six-by-nine-foot hot tub in the master bathroom. That’s a nice touch, since those are almost the exact dimensions of his prison cell.

Herman’s House often appears to be headed toward the politics of our nation’s incarceration policies, but every time it does, director Angad Singh Bhalla smartly steers it back to where it’s strongest: a story about hope, art, and the human spirit. That we never see Wallace’s face—he remains a detached, surprisingly upbeat voice speaking from a pay phone the entire film—only strengthens that theme. But Wallace isn’t Bhalla’s only source of pathos: After Sumell’s model of Wallace’s dream home is well received at art galleries, she launches an ambitious effort to actually build the house, so she moves to New Orleans to make it happen. (The art project, begun in 2002, took some four years to complete.) Meanwhile, Wallace is released from solitary confinement, and he has an appeal of his murder conviction pending.

The film could have been shorter: An impromptu debate between Sumell—a white Bay Area artist—and a black man about the Black Panthers is superfluous, if not a bit unsettling. (Wallace and two other incarcerated Panthers are known as the Angola 3.) But as documentaries on U.S. incarceration rates of minorities come fast and furious, Sumell and Wallace provide a nicely human entrance to the story.


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