Tonight, a film will be screened at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art that may interest lawyers and many others who seek to examine the U.S. corrections system. (Jump to the bottom for times, tickets, etc.)
Herman’s House is a feature documentary that explores what the filmmakers understatedly call “the unlikely friendship between a New York artist and one of America’s most famous inmates as they collaborate on an acclaimed art project.”
The inmate is Herman Joshua Wallace, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison on a bank robbery sentence. While he served his sentence, though, he and a fellow prisoner were accused of murdering an Angola (La.) prison guard, which landed him in solitary confinement. Though claims have been made that he may be innocent of the death charge (including claims by a widow of the guard), he has remained in solitary confinement for decades.
The film opens with an artist forming and sanding a uniquely shaped object: Is it an egg? Perhaps a stylized womb?
It turns out to be a toilet, crafted as part of an art installation designed to illustrate Herman Wallace’s existence in a jail cell. The artist is named Jackie Sumell, who had heard of Wallace and sent him a letter asking, among other things, “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?”
The movie that resulted shares their blossoming relationship and hints at what each takes away from the encounter. The ensuing art installation, which included a full-size replica of Wallace’s cell and a scale model of the man’s dream home, traveled around the world. Ultimately, though, the installation proves to be a significant but small sidebar to the filmmaker’s larger story.
The film is about many things—our ideas about incarceration and the cruelty of prolonged solitary confinement, primarily. But it also has much to say about isolation and its opposite. For the filmmakers and the artist Jackie Sumell, that opposite characteristic appears to be community. And community is a muscle she must flex to achieve a bigger Wallace dream: the actual construction of his idealized abode as a place for neighborhood children. Idle musings turn to the most real of real estate—if only she can marshal the resources to achieve it.
Herman’s House succeeds despite some long odds. For instance, here’s what I did upon learning that a New York artist had heard about a Louisiana prisoner and wrote to ask him about his ideal home: I grimaced in distaste. Would the movie, I wondered, be an awkward dialectic between an earnest and ambitious artist and the ultimate in house-bound correspondents? Could a true friendship be fostered between the two, or would Herman Wallace join the viewers in shaking our heads about the odd questions that people can ask?
Herman shook his head at first, but viewers never do, thanks to an adept filmmaker and the artist’s genuine approach to this project. Sumell may be young, and naïve at first, but she is never condescending. Like most surprising efforts, her contributions on Herman’s behalf ultimately get diverted from their original trajectory. It is one of the film’s numerous charms that the free and educated young artist gets schooled—gently and compassionately—by the elderly inmate. In the process, director and writer Angad Bhalla tells a story that is Wallace’s, then Sumell’s, then Wallace’s again. And both stories are compelling.
As befits the subject, transforming the justice system and constructing a house are long in coming—when not entirely impossible. The long second act is well-matched to the viewer’s growing sense of claustrophobia as avenues to house-success narrow rather than widen. As Jackie despairs over the seeming impossibility of Herman’s goals, viewers seek the shafts of light through the story’s bars. But as the credits approach, we begin to fear that darkness will remain.
No spoilers here, but it’s probably no surprise that the attempt to build a still-incarcerated man’s 3,000-square-foot vision of home is a long shot. Still, memories of Shawshank make viewers await that real estate breakthrough.
But the maddening attempts to site and build a house, admirable though they may be, are a scrim behind which the filmmaker’s ultimate message hovers. Jackie’s 83-minute slog—sometimes literal—through the marshes of construction-possibility yields a development of a decidedly more permanent variety. At Jackie’s prodding, Herman has offered his thoughts on the ideal dining room, in-ground pool, kitchen, and so forth. But what he and Jackie create together is not a house, but a relationship. That sense of belongingness, of community, comes to occupy a far more central place in the viewer’s mind—and, we’d guess, in the minds of Jackie and Herman.
Jackie’s own journey toward community mirrors Herman’s, but the sadnesses in her own life speak volumes about our everyday assessments of who’s made it and who’s to be pitied.
Midway into the film, the camera settles on a tree-surrounded bungalow, which we learn is Jackie’s childhood home on Long Island. An embarrassed cringe may seize viewers, who assume they’ll be treated to a snippet of her life to parallel Herman’s. Viewers got that snippet, for sure, but Jackie’s complicated story illuminates the life lessons Herman has already learned, and it is intimately related to the film’s messages about forgiveness and compassion. Her own family’s history told a sadder and more violent tale than the one suggested by the exterior of the storybook cottage. The viewer’s cringe is replaced by pleased relief at the story’s open-hearted examination of what we mean when we utter words like “family” and “neighbor.”
In the same way, Jackie’s move to a dicey New Orleans neighborhood highlights those themes. The scenes of Jackie riding her bike through the city while her voiceover speaks to the jailed Herman are both freeing and restricting. They walk us to the brink of the chasm between exhilarating freedom and caged humanity—where we think we understand which is which. But the words of the older and wiser Herman complicate those bicycle trips. She appears to glide through the grass-lined streets of New Orleans without care, but her mind is wracked by worry and conflict, a tumult entirely absent from Herman’s dialogue. Jackie may be on her own version of a Freedom Ride, but the man she aims to help is a prisoner in body only.
In a film featuring a man in solitary confinement (and who is never pictured, except in a decades-old photo), there may be no way around the result that the movie becomes Jackie’s more than Herman’s. As we view the young artist in her New Orleans home, surrounded by her new dog and neighborhood children, or watch her in a London gallery showing the Herman’s House project, we may come to believe that’s the case. But we’d be wrong.
Jackie Sumell’s path toward growing up and finding neighbors—and out of her own kind of isolation—is nothing less than a visible embodiment of Herman’s own vision. True enough: Without Jackie’s story, Herman’s tabletop cardboard home remains a pathetic counterpoint to his jail-cell existence. But just as true: With Herman’s sole (but never solitary) guidance, Jackie’s story becomes a remarkable first step toward the reassertion of humanity in trying circumstances—the theme of many a great story.
The film shows tonight at SMoCA Lounge, Scottsdale (7373 East 2nd Street at the Scottsdale Civic Center). (Map is below.)
Tickets are $7 at the SMoCA front desk, or by calling (480) 874-4666. Doors to the Lounge open at 7:00 p.m., and the film begins at 7:30.Follow @azatty