Herman Wallace, a Southerner and a Black Panther, has been in prison longer than I—and maybe you—have been alive. He went in on a bank-robbery charge in the early 1970s, was later convicted of murdering a prison guard, and has spent the past 30 years in solitary confinement. That murder conviction is dubious: No fingerprints tie him to the scene, and the only "evidence" is questionable testimony from other prisoners. More importantly, solitary confinement is increasingly regarded as a form of torture with physiological, brain-changing effects—the United Nations, the International Red Cross, physicians, and US judges have come down against the practice.
Brooklyn artist Jackie Sumell struck up a friendship with Wallace more than a decade ago. They've been in close contact—writing, calling, visiting—ever since. At one point during their talks, she asked him what a man in solitary confinement would imagine for his dream home. He told her, in detail, and that became their project. He designed it, she put together architectural drawings and a model for gallery shows (along with a precise wood re-creation of his current cage), and now she's looking for land in New Orleans to build it, where they hope it will become a youth center. Wallace's dream house includes an enormous bedroom with African art and mirrored ceilings, a bright yellow kitchen, and a swimming pool with a Black Panther logo on the bottom. The man's aesthetics froze the year he went to prison.
Herman's House, a deceptively plain documentary by Angad Bhalla, documents the friendship and the process. Bhalla's style as a director is effectively unostentatious—he hangs back with simple shots and straightforward interviews, gently letting us in on the gravity (and crazy hope) of the project, as well as the quiet and articulate dignity of the prisoner. Herman's House is a gorgeous, humane, and surprising piece of work.