The off-screen protagonist of Herman's House, Herman Wallace, already has a dwelling for his body: a 6-foot-by-8-foot cell at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola. But the documentary's on-screen protagonist, Jackie Sumell, wants him also to have a place for his soul: a dream house for a man who desperately needs dreams.
Sumell's project, like the movie that recounts it, mingles art and politics. The Brooklyn-based conceptual artist first contacted Wallace in 2001, after hearing a talk by Robert King, Wallace's friend and colleague. King (who was released in 2001) and Wallace were two of the "Angola 3," convicts who joined the Black Panthers in 1971 and protested inhumane treatment of inmates.
Wallace went to jail for bank robbery, but is still behind bars because he, with Angola 3 member Albert Woodfox, was convicted in the 1972 killing of a guard. Their allies say they're innocent — that they were charged with murder to stop their political activities. But after numerous legal actions, Wallace and Woodfox remain incarcerated.
When Canadian director Angad Singh Bhalla picks up the story circa 2007, Wallace has been behind bars some 40 years. Most of that time has been in solitary, a plight that inspired Sumell to build a replica of Wallace's cell to exhibit.
Before completing this endeavor, though, the artist senses that Wallace's spirit is fading. To distract him, she asks the prisoner to envision the home he'd like on the outside, should he be released. Later, the artist decides she needs to build this house, and moves to New Orleans to do so.
The fantasy structure, as interpreted by Sumell, doesn't exactly have a Crescent City vibe. From the outside, it suggests Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie style. In one of the movie's most interesting sequences, several architects argue that the interior reveals another influence: prison.
Although Wallace was released from solitary — temporarily — while the movie was being made, he never made his way in front of Bhalla's camera. He's heard only on the phone, or through an elaborate system of screens at Angola.
Yet he emerges as a vivid and remarkably sanguine character. He's candid about the crime that put him behind bars, and understanding when his supporters on the outside don't always put his interests first. At one point, he insists that Sumell pay more attention to her ailing mother than to him.
The artist accepts that order, but she's headstrong to the point of obsessiveness. One biographical detail is telling: As an adolescent, Sumell was the first girl on Long Island to join an organized tackle-football team. And a single comment establishes her political outlook: She calls the 2000 presidential election "the coup."
The contrasting demeanors of its two main characters give Herman's House its spark, but the movie has some pungent moments without them. At Sumell's gallery opening, for example, upscale New Yorkers chat and sip cocktails in the scale model of Wallace's cell.
If the movie is finally a little frustrating, that's because events failed to cooperate. Commendably, Bhalla followed Wallace and Sumell for several years. But neither's story came to a resolution before the filmmaker stopped shooting.
Herman's House would benefit from more background material on Wallace, notably about the alleged weakness of the murder rap against him. In the end, though, neither Sumell nor the film is concerned with that. Their goal is to make palpable — and palpably horrific — the fact of living 23 hours a day in caged isolation. Even those opening-night cocktail drinkers must have noticed that a 6-by-8 cell is soul-crushingly small.