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HERMAN’S HOUSE (review)

Review by Morayo Sayles

Before watching this film, I had no idea who Herman Wallace was and I believed Angola was a country in northwestern Africa.

I finished watching this film on October 13th, 2013 and immediately went to the Internet to read all I could about Herman Wallace.

The story of Herman’s House is more than a jailhouse story, goes further and deeper than a simple tale of an uncommon friendship forged between a convict and an artist from different worlds; This film tells of the devastating effects of captivity all the while highlighting the resilience of the human soul.  

Herman Wallace was one of the most famous inmates that the Louisiana State penitentiary, also known as Angola.

Shortly after the state of Louisiana incarcerated him for his complicity in a bank robbery, Herman Wallace was charged and found guilty of the murder of a jailhouse guard.

His subsequent punishment was to spend the rest of his captivity in solitary confinement.

Herman Wallace lived in a 6 x 8 cell for 40 years. It was in this cell and through the unorthodox relationship with Jackie Summell, an artist from New York that Herman Wallace created a house that would be his lasting legacy. Through discovery, exploration and trust, Jackie and Herman designed a 3,200 square foot house – the dream house of a man who left the free world in the early 70s and who has spent half his life in a room the size of the average American household bathroom.

“Herman’s House” became the centerpiece of Jackie’s exhibition and her exhibition showed in art galleries all over the world.
Though the film is called Herman’s House, the true story is the tale of Jackie and Herman’s friendship and the monumental odds Jackie faces trying to bring Herman’s dream to life.   Although I said earlier that this film is more than a tale of the friendship between Herman and Jackie, it is in telling this simple story of two friends that director Angad Bhalla shines.

Through dialogue, voice-overs and stunning imagery, Angad Bhalla draws viewers into Herman’s world and makes him a familiar friend even though out the film we never actually see Herman’s face. Bhalla also treats viewers to sumptuous nuggets of information about each character – Herman Wallace, the 4th child in a line of 9 children born to a struggling couple in the 9th ward of New Orleans. Herman at the age of 26 enters the walls of Angola after committing a terrible crime, but then finds peace, salvation and dignity in the Black Panther’s creed.  While Wallace never gets the opportunity to share his re-defined spirit with the free world, his influence is unstoppable even behind bars.

Young men who encounter Herman changed from feral and confused creatures to calm and confident men.  After 10 minutes of watching the movie, I was rooting for Herman, anxiously hoping at the end of the film that I would see him walk proudly out of Angola and like in all great movies the sun sets on his triumphant return to the free world.

And Jackie the artist, who is more than her profession, a modern knight fighting for the honor of her friend. The first female to play competitive tackle football at the age of 15 in her childhood city of Long Island, the story of Jackie Summell is that of a girl trying to be more than activist. She is engaging and entertaining, brave and fiercely devoted to the dream of a man who clearly fills the father-figure role in her life. It was so easy to like Jackie and to admire her for what she was doing for Herman.  I envied her at times the freedom to pursue her dream and follow her passion – which included packing up and moving from open-minded world New York City to suspicious, cynical and hard world of New Orleans. 

Viewers also learn that Herman Wallace’s dream home – the second star of the film, was reflective of his life behind walls.  Herman designed the house to be a 3200 square foot sanctuary for New Orleans wayward youth.  He designed it to be welcoming and inspiring in all aspects.  Listening to Herman’s voice over description of his home, you can sense the love and pride he had in the brainchild project of his.

“3 squares of gardens with tulips, gardenias, and carnations. Guests to smile and to walk through flowers all year long. A wall of revolutionary fame – Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, John Brown and Harriet Tubman. Upstairs is the Master bedroom and in it a king-sized bed, African art and mirrored ceilings.  A door leading from the master bedroom to the master bathroom with a 6ft by 9ft hot tub… A large swimming pool with a large green bottom and a large black panther in the center.”

Despite its coolness and dated 70s charm, the house was influenced by Herman’s life behind bars. From his design, the rising or setting sun cannot be seen from any room. Prison architecture forms filled the structure, from the dinning area that was more like a prison common room, to the sectioned of areas that did not allow for free flow movement.

In closing, I have to say I really enjoyed watching the movie. It is entertaining and educational without being heavy handed. There is no mistaking the message of the movie – the injustice of solitary confinement and the debilitating effects it can have on the human spirit, however it also tells a hopeful story of what can be achieved when you are encouraged to dream.

The film ends with hope for Herman Wallace, but not all dreams come true.  Herman’s house is still waiting to be built, and when it is, it will be in memoriam of Herman Wallace who died from liver failure as a free man October 2, 2013 just three days after he was released from Angola. 

Herman’s House is an Official Selection: HotDocs Film Festival and is currently available on iTunes, XBOX, PlayStation, Vudu, Amazon Instant Video, and DVD (through First Run Features).
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