Film Review: Herman's House

<i>Herman&#8217;s House</i> shows off the talents of several young principal crew members, and that of the director who makes his documentary feature debut, but it lacks the gravitas of human-rights filmmaking.

Herman’s House, a documentary by Angad Singh Bhalla, is ostensibly about Herman Wallace, who has been spent much of the past 41 years in solitary confinement. The 71-year-old Angola prison inmate never appears on-camera, but is heard in voiceover speaking to Jackie Sumell, the real subject of the film. She is an artist whose work has been devoted to representing Wallace’s unconscionable punishment. Sumell built a wooden replica of Wallace’s cell, and then a scale model of the house he would like to live in, if he is ever released from the notorious Louisiana penitentiary. As the documentary meanders through clips of Sumell’s art show, a cursory treatment of Wallace’s background, and then to the letters and telephone calls between the artist and the prisoner, Bhalla comes to rest on Sumell’s neurotic personality.

The Canadian director, aided by a talented editor, Ricardo Acosta (The Market), and a skilled cinematographer, fellow Canadian Iris Ng (Stories We Tell), succeeds somewhat with Herman’s House by speculating about the parallels in the lives of his two subjects, although this perspective is made difficult by the fact that Bhalla had only 30 minutes of Wallace’s voice, taped conversations monitored by the prison. The documentary also takes the Twitter-generation approach to historical content: It is short on details and long on pleasing visual content. Despite its billing, Herman’s House is not a human-rights documentary, and is likely to disappoint prison activists, as well as audiences hoping to learn about Wallace.

Wallace, Albert Fox and Robert King, who are Black Panthers, have long been known as the Angola 3. The men started a Black Panthers chapter at Angola prison in the early 1970s. Shortly afterward, Wallace and Fox were convicted of murdering a prison guard; King was charged as an accessory. Because of the taint of racism in their trial, and the lack of physical evidence against them, along with later findings that the sole eyewitness had been bribed by prison officials, many prominent human-rights organizations have for decades demanded their release. Charges were dropped against King in 2001. Wallace and Fox, who have spent about the same amount of time in solitary confinement, launched an unsuccessful civil lawsuit in 2012. Unlike the definitive documentary on the prison, The Farm: Angola, USA (1989), Herman’s House provides no picture of conditions there in the 1970s, or the political and social climate of that revolutionary era, all of which would explain Wallace’s status as a political prisoner.

These shortcomings are deftly eclipsed by the documentary’s imaginative animation, including drawings overlaid on the movie frame, and a soaring model of the house, which also lighten the downward spiral of the narrative. What cannot be masked is the fact that neither Bhalla nor Sumell explain the latter’s reasons for becoming so enamored of Wallace. Sumell describes her outrage after attending a talk about his solitary confinement, but these feelings are not apparent in her demeanor, and Wallace’s absence in the documentary means the audience is prevented from witnessing the dynamics of their relationship. Sumell wrote to Wallace shortly after that lecture, and during the four years of filming Herman’s House, after Sumell’s mother dies, Wallace suggests that the artist look for land and build his house. At this point, the relationship appears exploitative and even abusive, Wallace taking advantage of some unconscious but apparent needs of Sumell’s that are never defined.

Sumell admits to having had an abusive family, and Wallace, about whom we know very little, is understandably desperate to imagine a life outside his six-by-nine-foot cell. If Bhalla suggests that Sumell is searching for a more benign father, and that Wallace is happy to step in given what he gains from it, or simply because he likes Sumell, it is pure conjecture since the audience never sees them together. Ironically, what proves somewhat more tangible is an idea, one that underlies the entire documentary, that of the physical and psychological spheres inhabited by these subjects. Wallace and Sumell each need to find a different space, Wallace for obvious reasons, and Sumell because she’s adrift, having anchored herself to Wallace’s dream, which fails to materialize. In the course of the documentary, as she searches for land on which to build Wallace’s house, the Brooklyn-born artist buys her own.

This rather abstract notion of personal space is explored when Bhalla follows Sumell and Wallace’s sister Vickie moving through places that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable for them, such as Vickie attending one of Sumell’s art exhibits about Wallace, and Sumell during an interview at her childhood home where she confesses to having a dysfunctional family. These scenes, as well as ones in which Bhalla juxtaposes Sumell’s apartment and her New Orleans home, more controlled but equally revealing interiors, add tension to a tenuous narrative. Interviews with architects about Wallace’s design for his house have the same intent, and they are a clever way to discuss the absent subject, yet none of the architects’ observations are surprising or profound. In the end, Herman’s House is a string of excellent volleys on Bhalla’s part to construct a documentary in which one subject is barely present, and the other expresses no motive for undertaking the grand scheme that has come to define her life.