Jackie Sumell is no stranger to making a scene – in 2001, she organized a march on Washington, carrying hundreds of women’s pubic hair in order to protest pro-life decisions made by George Bush. Long before that, she was the first girl in Long Island to play competitive tackle football. However, when she attended a conference and ended up getting in touch with Herman Wallace, a now 40-year prisoner in solitary confinement, she had no idea it would eventually become the project she is most recognized for.
Herman’s House, a film written and directed by Angad Singh Bhalla, follows the 12-year relationship between the two unlikely associates. The story begins when Sumell sends Wallace a letter consisting of pictures of what she happened to be doing every hour, so that he will know what is still happening in the world outside his 6 foot by 9 foot cell – a room smaller than the average parking space. They begin a game: if Wallace were able to have any house in the world, what would it look like? Their plans become more and more concrete, and Sumell creates a scale model of Wallace’s dream house, eventually displaying it in 12 exhibits around the world under the name The House that Herman Built. The project escalates, with the goal eventually changing into actually creating the house in New Orleans, so that it can be a community center for youth. However, the movie doesn’t try to shine a positive light on the ordeal the two have been through – it concludes with Wallace still in prison and Sumell stuck in a rut, unable to find a way to make Wallace’s dream a reality.
The movie is surprisingly candid, more of a biography of Wallace and Sumell than an exposé on solitary confinement and its injustices. It manages to strike a balance between the hot-button topic of long-term incarceration and the very human and surprisingly accessible experiences of a thirty-something artist and an accused murderer. It covers the issue of solitary confinement from a fairly objective angle, but shows a strong bias through Sumell and Wallace that this practice is overused and unfair. By the end of the film, it’s easy to feel all of the emotions that it covers – struggle, hope, patience and impatience. Justifiable anger. Being strong in the face of adversity and knowing to never give up. After all, this movie wasn’t named Best Documentary by the Harlem International Film Festival for nothing.
Long story short, this movie is powerful. It’s well-made, interesting, and can express everything it needs to and more. If everyone who read this article were to go watch it, I would bet the world would improve, just a little.
Grand Illusion Cinema
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Through Thursday, June 13
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