[H]erman Wallace was twenty-one year old when he was found guilty in a case of bank robbery and sent behind the bars. At the age of thirty-one he was condemned to solitary confinement for murder of a prison- guard which- the film strongly indicates -he likely did not commit. At the time of making of the film he was sixty-nine year old and still in solitary confinement.
Jackie Sumell, an artist-activist, reaches out to Herman through letters in which she asks, “What kind of a house would a man who has been living in a 6ft by 9 ft cell for over thirty years dream of?” Through a series of letters and phone conversations (and some in-person meetings through double metal doors), Herman gives Jackie detailed descriptions of the cell he is in and the house he dreams to live in. Jackie creates an art project with a model of Herman’s House and a cubicle which simulates his cell. The project is completed and successfully tours the galleries. This, however, does not end the relationship Jackie and Herman have built over the five years and Jackie, who had originally simply wanted to get Herman out by “getting him to dream”, now wants to actually build Herman’s house and hopes to see him out of the prison one day.
Through its feature length, Herman’s House touches upon the issues of institutionalized racism in the United States, delayed justice, fate of former Black Panther activists, and makes a strong case against prolonged solitary confinement which Jackie considers to be ‘torture’. But at the primary level it remains a story of hope, friendship and unconquerable human spirit. And that is what gives Herman’s House its universal appeal. Herman could be a political activist or member of a suppressed minority in any country and yet the case which the film makes would still be as relevant. Jackie could be an artist-activist, anywhere in the world, who gets so involved in her subject’s life that she can no longer compartmentalize her association into professional or personal.
It is commendable how we never feel the invisibility of Herman although we never see him. His presence is built in the film through his conversations with Jackie on the phone. As we are made privy to their conversations; we develop an emotional stake in their dreams of building the house and of getting Herman out of the prison. We feel frustrated and disappointed with their failures and our hopes are revived with their hopes. Their friendship forms much of the premise of the film and takes the story forward.
What one misses in the film is the legal system’s side to Herman’s story. There are instances in the film when, even while empathizing with Herman, one feels ill-equipped to form an opinion or take sides. This is especially relevant since the film does seem to be asking us to take a stand.
Music in Herman’s House is memorable and evocative. Director Angad Bhalla has used animation intelligently to portray the world through Herman’s eyes and to add visual interest. It is a well-made film which puts forward its case without any preaching or essayist tendency.