Herman Wallace may be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States—he’s spent more than 40 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell in Louisiana. Imprisoned in 1967 for a robbery he admits, he was subsequently sentenced to life for a killing he vehemently denies. Herman’s House is a moving account of the remarkable expression his struggle found in an unusual project proposed by artist Jackie Sumell. Imagining Wallace’s “dream home” began as a game and became an interrogation of justice and punishment in America. The film takes us inside the duo’s unlikely 12-year friendship, revealing the transformative power of art.
The injustice of solitary confinement and the transformative power of art are explored in Herman’s House, a feature documentary that follows the unlikely friendship between a New York artist and one of America’s most famous inmates as they collaborate on an acclaimed art project.
In 1972, New Orleans native Herman Joshua Wallace (b. 1941) was serving a 25-year sentence for bank robbery when he was accused of murdering an Angola Prison guard and thrown into solitary confinement. Many believed him wrongfully convicted. Appeals were made but Herman remained in jail and—to increasingly widespread outrage—in solitary. Years passed with one day much like the next. Then in 2001 Herman received a perspectiveshifting letter from a Jackie Sumell, a young art student, who posed the provocative question:
“What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?”
Thus began an inspired creative dialogue, unfolding over hundreds of letters and phone calls and yielding a multi-faceted collaborative project that includes the exhibition “The House That Herman Built.” The revelatory art installation—featuring a full-scale wooden model of Herman’s cell and detailed plans of his dream home—has brought thousands of gallery visitors around the world face-to-face with the harsh realities of the American prison system.
But as Herman’s House reveals, the exhibition is just the first step.
Their journey takes a more unpredictable turn when Herman asks Jackie to make his dream a reality. As her own finances dwindle, Jackie begins to doubt if she can meet the challenge of finding land and building a real house. Meanwhile, Herman waits to find out if the Louisiana courts will hear his latest appeal.
Along the way we meet self-confessed “stick-up kid” Michael Musser, who credits Herman for helping him turn his life around while in solitary; Herman’s sister Vickie, a loyal and tireless supporter despite her own emotional burden; and former long-term solitary inmate and fellow Black Panther activist Robert King who, along with Herman and Albert Woodfox, was one of the so-called Angola 3 that became a cause celebre in the 2000s.
“I’m not a lawyer and I’m not rich and I’m not powerful, but I’m an artist,” Jackie says.
“And I knew the only way I could get (Herman) out of prison was to get him to dream.” There are 2.2 million people in jail in the U.S. More than 80,000 of those are in solitary confinement. Herman Wallace has been there longer than anyone.
With compassion and meaningful artistry, Herman’s House takes us inside the lives and imaginations of two unforgettable characters–forging a friendship and building a dream in the struggle to end the “cruel and unusual punishment” of long-term solitary confinement.