After attending a presentation in 2001 by Robert King, the former Angola 3 inmate, about the controversial conditions in the Louisiana State Penitentiary and the continued incarceration — in solitary confinement — of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, Brooklyn-born multidisciplinary artist Jackie Sumell began a correspondence with Wallace that developed into a fascinating friendship that is explored in Angad Singh Bhalla’s debut documentary, Herman’s House. “I’m not a lawyer and I’m not rich and I’m not powerful, but I’m an artist,” Jackie says in the film. “And I knew the only way I could get him out of prison was to get him to dream.” She gets him to dream by having him describe, in exacting detail, the house he’d like to live in if he were to ever be released, and she goes ahead and designs it, working with architects on the blueprints. She also builds a scale model that becomes part of a traveling art exhibit, “The House That Herman Built,” which includes a precise re-creation in wood of Wallace’s six-by-nine-foot cell, his home for thirty-six years. Bhalla, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, while also serving as director of photography with Iris Ng, never shows Wallace on camera; instead, he paints a portrait of the New Orleans native —who was first convicted of bank robbery in 1967, then of killing a prison guard in 1972, eventually sentenced to life without parole for a crime he claims he didn’t commit — through a series of recorded phone conversations he has with Sumell over the years. Bhalla also visits with ex-convict Michael Musser, who got his life back on track because of Wallace; Wallace’s sister Vickie, who is not afraid to speak her mind; and King, who helped form the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party with Wallace, Woodfox, and others. “You look at this house, you’re looking at me,” Wallace says. Indeed, viewers might never get to see Wallace, but by the end of the film, they will feel like they know him — and will hope for his release. But Bhalla never steers the narrative into a clarion call condemning the prison system and demanding Wallace’s freedom, instead allowing those elements to be subtle parts of this intriguing tale of a very unusual relationship.
Herman’s House opens April 19 at Cinema Village with a series of special discussions all weekend featuring such guest speakers as NYCLU senior staff attorney Taylor Pendergrass, WNYC reporter Anna Sale, Five Mualimmak of the NYC Jails Action Coalition, King Downing of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, executive director Soffiyah Elijah of the Correctional Association, and solitarywatch.com editor Jean Casella in addition to Bhalla and Sumell.