Doc exposes ‘solitary’
“Herman’s House” brings light to Black Panther’s plight
Published: Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 16:04
Forty years in solitary confinement. Six feet by nine feet prison cell. Twenty-three hours a day. In 2003 New York-based artist Jackie Sumell asked Black Panther Herman Wallace what type of home a man who has lived in solitary confinement for more than three decades dreamed about. The question sparked a collaborative art project between Wallace and Sumell called “The House That Herman Built.”
“Herman’s House,” a documentary about the project and the continued struggle to gain humane treatment for Wallace, screens at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Sat., April 14.
Wallace is a member of the famed “Angola 3,” members of the Black Panthers who mobilized prisoners against inhumane treatment in the early 1970s. Wallace was convicted of murdering a prison guard in 1972 along with fellow Black Panther Albert Woodfox.
According to a 2011 investigative report by Amnesty International, no physical evidence links Wallace or Woodfox to the crime and their convictions depended on what Amnesty International considers questionable testimony.
Wallace’s original sentence, an armed robbery conviction, has been served. Woodfox also remains imprisoned. The third member of the “Angola 3,” Robert H. King, has been released.
“Herman’s House” is directed by Angad Bhalla. Bhalla said he wanted his film to reveal the humanity of those imprisoned and to encourage society to denounce solitary confinement.
“The inhumanity of solitary confinement was recognized by both legal scholars and faith leaders in the 19th century,” Bhalla wrote in an e-mail. “Unfortunately, we’ve created an inhumane society that has permitted the growing use of this practice in the last few decades.”
“Herman’s House” documents Sumell’s construction of Wallace’s dream home for exhibits around the world. The exhibits also include an exact replica of Wallace’s prison cell. As the film progresses, Wallace asks Sumell to build an actual home in New Orleans to be used as a youth center.
This struggle, undertaken alone by Sumell, reflects the struggle Wallace has endured. Bhalla examines Sumell’s life in the film to illuminate the unique relationship between her and Wallace.
“The more we explored Herman and Jackie’s unique relationship, the more I realized that it would be hard to understand without having some idea of Jackie’s difficult upbringing,” wrote Bhalla.
I also knew that this scene had to take place in her home, the home where these memories existed, to further reinforce the importance of space and home that the film explores.”
The art project transports him outside his prison cell via the hands of Sumell.
Bhalla incorporated animation into the film to illustrate Wallace’s charisma. “Given that the prison denied our request to film Herman, I knew that we would need to create visuals to accompany his charismatic voice,” wrote Bhalla.
“I wanted to keep the animations abstract and impressionistic because I felt uncomfortable trying to in some way concretely represent Herman’s state. I also wanted to use the animations to force audiences to imagine what Herman’s experience in solitary was like in the same way Herman is imagining what life outside his cell is like.”
“Herman’s House” screens Sat., April 14 at 1:10 p.m. at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. Tickets are available at fullframefest.org.