Solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary is among the most desperate and forlorn places on Earth. The prison—better known by its nickname, “Angola”—is the largest maximum-security prison in the country, with 5000 inmates. It is a place largely indistinguishable from the slave plantation it once was—a place where sexual slavery and rape are endemic, where the largely black inmates still pick cotton in the fields day in and day out without pay.
Angad Bhalla’s Herman’s House (2012) tells the story of Herman Wallace, who’s been in Angola for 45 years—forty of them in solitary confinement. Wallace went to Angola for bank robbery. In 1967 he started a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party with fellow inmates Robert King and Albert Woodfox. The group organized sit-ins, strikes, and other protests against prison segregation, sexual slavery, and other abuses.
However, Wallace and Woodfox were convicted in the stabbing murder of prison guard Brent Miller in 1971, and King was accused as an accomplice. This was despite the fact that none of the fingerprints found at the scene—including one in blood—matched their own. All three went to solitary confinement. King’s original conviction was overturned after 29 years in solitary confinement and he was released; Wallace and Woodfox are still there. Known as the Angola Three, these men have become an international cause célèbre.
The film tells Wallace’s story through the eyes of Jackie Sumell, an artist who has carried on a correspondence with Wallace over a period of years. In 2003 Sumell began asking Wallace about his dream home. She documented his response—including a full-sized wooden model of his solitary confinement cell and a scale model of his dream home—in a mixed-media exhibit titled “The House that Herman Built” (2003) that has been shown in galleries around the world.
Bhalla’s film takes us through the conception, construction, and exhibition of “The House that Herman Built” while telling Herman’s story and the story of the Angola Three. Eventually we see Sumell move to New Orleans, Louisiana—Herman’s hometown and the home of his sister, Vicki—to build Herman’s dream home as a real-life, brick-and-mortar youth center. She becomes an adoptive member of the Wallace family, and of the depressed, majority-black community she moves into in New Orleans.
This unusual relationship between Wallace and Sumell is the film’s main focus, which is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. While we meet black activists like Vicki Wallace, Malik Rahim, and Robert King, the film hovers over them only briefly. We never get a full, rich portrait of the organizing-from-below that first brought the Angola Three to the world’s attention and has kept it there for fifteen years. At the same time, the story of how a culturally elite, thirty-something white artist from New York City could grow so close to a sixty-something black Angola inmate with little formal education—along with the family and communities that formed him—is irresistible.
The film narrowly avoids drifting into a Nicholas Kristof-style white savior narrative by showing both Sumell’s failures and Wallace’s agency. After she moves to New Orleans—“deeply in debt,” as the film says—all her efforts to buy land and build Herman’s dream house, much less make a living, start to founder. We listen to recorded conversations between the two as Sumell vents her frustration and Wallace calms and encourages her. Later we watch as Sumell cries on the phone while Wallace comforts her after his final state appeal is denied. At one point Sumell talks into the camera about how much she’s learned from Wallace, King, and Rahim. It’s obvious that their friendship is one of peers with deep mutual respect and admiration.
Bhalla also shows us vignettes that speak to Wallace’s character and integrity. In one a white former inmate and his mother discuss how Wallace took him under his wing on the solitary confinement bloc and taught him about compassion. “If that man can do that for my son in there” the mother says, in a drawl plain and beautiful as the Louisiana earth as she mixes a Waldorf salad, “imagine what he could do out here.” The moment is striking.
In another, a lawyer tells how Wallace volunteered to testify against his own deceased nephew so that another prisoner would not be unjustly convicted of murder. When the lawyer told Wallace he did not have to take the stand and risk being cut off from his sister—his only means of support—Wallace looked him in the eye and said, simply, “I expect you to call me to testify. It’s the right thing to do.”
The overall impression one is left with after watching Herman’s House is of Wallace’s deep humanity and of our prison system’s deep inhumanity. Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been locked in six-foot-by-nine-foot cells 23 hours a day for the past forty years for speaking out against the racist, violent, and sexually abusive conditions that are central to America’s prisons. There are many words to describe that; civilized isn’t one of them.
This article appeared in the 19 October 2012 issue of Spare Change News.