Opening today at New York’s Cinema Village, “Herman’s House” evokes the relationship between West Memphis Three prisoner Damien Nichols and the New York architect who after joining his defense campaign became his wife. In “Herman’s House”, the relationship is more about a young woman bonding with a father figure but is just as moving.
The 40-year-old artist Jackie Sumell was one of those young people who inexplicably became radicalized in the 1990s. Her first foray into synthesizing art and politics was the 2001 project challenging Bush’s attacks on reproductive freedom. A Salon article from back then shows what conceptual art is capable of once it puts aside the cheap sensationalism of a Damian Hirst:
Jackie Sumell’s art project, she says, is less about art than about social intervention. An MFA student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Sumell has put out the call to female friends and acquaintances: Shave your pubic hair, put it in a little plastic bag and send it to her in the mail (anonymously, please). Her rallying cry? “No Bush! — It’s not yours, it’s mine.”
Like many kids who got involved with the Vietnam anti-war movement, there was little in her background to suggest that she would eventually end up as a kind of Dadaist revolutionary. In high school she was a star athlete and even ended up on an all-tackle football team.
Not long after this project was finished, she learned about Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3 who had been in solitary confinement for 40 years. He was convicted of bank robbery in 1967 but was handed down a life sentence after being charged with the murder of a prison guard. Even though a bloody fingerprint on the guard did not match his, the sentence was not reversed.
Sumell conceived of a two-tiered conceptual art project, the first part of which would be a replication of Herman’s cell in a gallery. The next part, done cooperatively with Wallace, would consist of raising funds to build a house that corresponded to his dreams. She guessed correctly that having conversations with him about the layout, etc. would keep his spirits up.
The film was the first time I had thought about the Angola 3 in a very long time. Back in the early 70s the Militant newspaper used to cover their case in the same way that the leftwing of the Internet covers Mumia. Wallace and two other men formed a chapter of the Black Panther Party behind bars in 1971. This put them on a collision course with the authorities who found the murder of the guard convenient to their aims.
You never see Wallace throughout the film but overhear his conversations with Sumell throughout the film. Given what he has been through, he is amazingly serene and broadminded. We meet a young white ex-convict who was in solitary confinement with Wallace and learned how to read and write through Wallace’s guidance.
The film points out that architects back in the 18th century designed prisons with the intention of isolating prisoners from each other. They wanted to emulate a monastery where monks would commune with God and be inspired to repent for their crimes. Wallace states that the analogy is with a dog pound where the animals are kept apart. Did you ever walk into a dog pound, he asks. The animals are driven mad by their conditions.
Try and imagine what is like to be along in a 6X9 cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week. This is not punishment. It is torture.
“Herman’s House” is tough going but essential cinema.