As a study of two people unlikely to know each other, but whose lives have become linked by a shared goal, Herman's House is certainly compelling, and at turns even devastating and hopeful. But as a think piece about whether or not solitary confinement is cruel, outdated, and barbaric, or whether it's still an acceptable form of punishment, Angad Singh Bhalla's documentary, while by no means inconsiderable, is largely insufficient.
Though interesting and heartfelt in their own right, the stories of Jackie Sumell, a multidisciplinary artist, and Herman Wallace, a Black Panther in solitary confinement who Sumell asked to imagine what his dream house would look like if he were out of jail, are really a way for Bhalla to get the audience to question the entire practice of placing prisoners, regardless of guilt, crime, or reason, into solitary confinement. Bhalla and Sumell were both drawn to Wallace because of his reportedly record stint in solitary, an insanity-inducing form of imprisonment that, as Charles Dickens once wrote, “no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creatures.” Herman's House, with its strong subjects, is captivating, but for the most part it doesn't elaborate on why this form of punishment is especially bad, why some consider it torture, and, separate from this, but also part of the doc's problem, how it might be financially unsustainable. It assumes audiences will agree that solitary confinement is inherently wrong, which, as is proven when Sumell interviews an unsympathetic man on a Louisiana street, simply isn't true.
The idea for Herman's House comes from Sumell's art installation The House that Herman Built, a wood-cut recreation of Wallace's cell. We follow the Long Island-raised Sumell, a former football player who now dons a Black Panther shirt and wears striped socks pulled up to her knees, as she takes her installation to London, tries to purchase land in Louisiana to build Wallace's dream home on (which the prisoner wants to use a community center), and nearby as she goes deep into debt buying a house of her own. That the doc sticks with her past the point where she no longer serves her initial function as a jumping-off point to “the issue” in the film is curious, and adds an extra dimension that almost could serve as a cautionary tale about the possible costs of activism.
Since we can't see Herman (we can only hear him in taped phone calls), the opinion we form of him partly comes from our imaginations. This has the unintended effect of enhancing our sense of ambivalence toward the man, and plays on what we think of his guilt regarding a somewhat inconclusive murder charge, the reason that he and other Black Panthers were given solitary confinement not long after being sent to prison in the early '70s for a bank robbery. In this way, Herman is the perfect subject for a film that asks us to consider not what a person has done or whether they're guilty of it, but if they deserve to be confined to six-by-nine cells for 23 hours a day for years on end, even decades. Save for some use of effective drawn-over-the-image visuals of prison bars that communicate some of the frustration of not being free, and some brief but very interesting interviews with prison architects who say, sadly, that Herman's dream house is very prison-like, it's unfortunate then that Herman's House, an otherwise involving documentary, doesn't offer a convincing argument against solitary confinement for those who may not fully realize what's objectionable about it.