Herman’s House

| March 19, 2013

“I’m not a lawyer. I’m not rich, I’m not powerful, but I am an artist, and I knew that the only way to get him out of prison was to get him to dream.”

Many argue that the judicial system is broken, and Herman’s House is no doubt fire on that debate’s flame.

Prison is a nightmare for anybody. No matter how horrendous their crime might have been or how old or young they are, nobody wants to find themselves in one of the millions of jail cells across the country. Herman Wallace was convicted of robbing a bank in 1967, which landed him in prison with a few of his buddies. But when he was accused and convicted in the stabbing death of a prison guard in 1972, he ended up in solitary confinement, where he has since spent 23 hours of each day.

Jackie Sumell learned about Herman’s story in 2003, and decided to do something about it. An artist and an activist, Jackie explained that everything she fights for is motivated by an even balance of anger and love. This blend of emotions leads her to ask Herman the question: “What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6’x9’ box for over thirty years dream of?” His answer led to her project The House That Herman Built, an exhibit that has been featured in twelve galleries and five countries. It features his dream house, as well as his life history and a life-size recreation of the cell in which he serves his time.

Emotions fly in this charged documentary. The honesty of the people involved makes it hard for viewers not to feel that they are a part of this situation, and that there is something they are obligated to do to help. We don’t get to see Herman, but his voice is heard throughout the film. He is not the type of man you would expect to meet from solitary confinement. Several people in the documentary attest to his life-changing compassion and evident selflessness. The film manages to portray his kind heart and sense of humor through the phone calls he shares with his new-found friend Jackie.

People get out of jail on good behavior for lesser goods, so this poignant documentary begs the question as to why Herman, who is seemingly a deeply changed [and possibly innocent] man, has spent the longest time in solitary confinement in history.  Herman’s positive attitude is nothing short of mind-blowing for a man that confesses that he would “rather be homeless,” and his wisdom is proof that one doesn’t need a massive education to change somebody’s life.

We get to see a more personal side of Jackie, too. She shares in some of the pride and anger that flooded her childhood and teen years, describing the strained relationship with her father and loss of her mother, as well as her being a beauty queen and being the first girl to play competitive tackle football in Long Island, NY.

Herman’s House is a story about the power of hope and dreams. Jackie gives Herman a gateway with which to dream, and being in a room where all he has to rely on is his imagination allows him to come up with a detailed description of the house he would love to spend the rest of his life in.

Herman’s House features a bevy of blueprint-like animations and illustrations that are appropriate to this film, since it centers on architecture. They complement the various photographs and shots of the architecture in New York and Louisiana. The stark differences between the two cities complement each other well, and somehow Jackie fits into both environments.

Herman’s House is an amazing story of strength that is sure to encourage people going through lesser struggles. It is an empowering and emotional roller coaster ride. Disagreements happen. Debates occur. Hope comes and goes. The film contains a heavy story, but it is one of adventure. In Jackie’s own words, “It’s  intense and it’s beautiful and it’s challenging, and it’s the last thing I ever expected.”

About the Author:

Caress is a Chicagoan who has a deep fascination with film. Her love for movies began as an undergraduate at Roosevelt University, where her teacher suggested she write a movie review. Caress' favorite genres include indie dramas, foreign films, experimental films, and psychological thrillers. When she's not watching movies, Caress enjoys writing, photography, travel, fashion and music.
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