Herman's House: Film Review

Herman's House - H 2013
Storyline Entertainment
This moving but sketchy documentary fails to explore its provocative issues in fully satisfying fashion.

Angad Singh Bhalla's documentary revolves around the relationship between a prisoner in long-term solitary confinement and the artist who creates a project evoking his plight.

The relationship between a prisoner who has been held in solitary confinement for more than four decades and the multimedia artist who champions his cause is the subject of Angad Singh Bhalla’s provocative but uneven documentary. Although it sketchily touches on many provocative issues -- the inhumanity of this form of incarceration, the relationship between the artist and subject -- Herman’s House fails to explore them in a fully satisfying manner.

Herman Wallace has been imprisoned in Louisiana’s notorious Angola penitentiary since committing a bank robbery in 1967. Five years later, Wallace -- who had garnered attention as one of the “Angola 3,” a trio of Black Panthers who spoke out against the prison’s inhumane conditions -- was thrown into solitary after being convicted along with the other two of murdering a prison guard. The murky circumstances and Wallace’s outspoken activism led some to consider the charges trumped up, with his cause taken up by various human-rights organizations. But except for a respite in which he was briefly moved back into the prison’s general population, Wallace remains in solitary confinement to this day, longer than any other inmate in the country.

“I’m in a cell 23 hours a day,” says Wallace. “I’m used to it, and that’s one of the bad things about it.”

Visual artist Jackie Sumell became sympathetic to Wallace’s case more than a decade ago and began a long-running correspondence with him. In an effort to provide him some emotional relief, she offered to create an art project that would evoke both the 6-by-9-foot cell in which he lives and his “dream house,” which she hoped to eventually build as a center for delinquent youths.

As one architect points out, one of the more ironic aspects of the design is that Wallace envisioned a home filled with tiny spaces and without views, not unlike the one in which he resides.

Although it contains many excerpts from taped phone conversations with Wallace -- subtitles help compensate for the murky sound quality -- the film largely concentrates on the quirky Sumell, who is seen attempting to purchase her own home and who vaguely discusses issues like her dysfunctional family life as a child.

The film is ultimately skimpy on the type of details that would provide much-needed context to the story, instead concentrating on decrying the inherent cruelties of long-term solitary confinement. The haphazard storytelling makes for frustrating viewing, though its portrait of these two disparate figures drawn together under dramatic circumstances ultimately proves moving.

Opens: Friday, April 19 (First Run Features)

Director-screenwriter: Angad Singh Bhalla

Producers: Lisa Valencia-Svensson, Angad Singh Balla

Executive producers: Ed Barreveld, Loring McAlpin

Directors of photography: Angad Singh Bhalla, Iris Ng

No MPAA rating, 81 minutes