Very Good (3 stars)
Running time: 81 minutes
Distributor: First Run Features
Seventy-two-year-old Herman Wallace has been imprisoned at Louisiana’s infamous Angola penitentiary since he was found guilty of committing bank robbery back in 1967. His sentence was later lengthened to life after he was convicted of stabbing a prison guard to death solely on the testimony of a fellow inmate.
Was he a political prisoner who’d been railroaded on account of his membership in the Black Panther Party, or had he actually committed the murder? Unfortunately, that question is not the focus of “Herman’s House,” an unlikely-couple documentary directed by Angad Singh Bhalia.
Mr. Singh instead devotes his attention to the friendship forged between Herman and a woman half his age. “Jailbirds and the naïve girls who love them” has served as the theme of many a TV talk show, but rarely have any gangsters’ molls had the pedigree, sophistication or undying dedication of Jackie Sumell.
Sumell, an activist who once presented anti-abortion President Bush a quilt woven from hundreds of pro-choice feminist’s pubic hair, was a grad student in the Art Department at Stanford when she took an interest in Herman. What really rankled her was the fact that he held the record for solitary confinement in the country, currently at 40+ years and counting.
Over that period, he’s been cooped up in a 6 x 9 foot cell, which Jackie felt was a violation of the 8th Amendment’s sanction against cruel and unusual punishment. So, she struck up a long-distance correspondence with Herman via a combination of letters and phone calls.
And that led to a decision to draw attention to his plight by mounting an art exhibition featuring a full-scale replica of his prison cell. But this is where it gets weird. She also asked Herman what his dream home would look like, prior to then moving down to New Orleans, buying some land, and consulting architects to draw up plans for a place the two would ostensibly share should he ever be paroled.
Listen, this biopic basically revolves around Jackie’s earnest effort to turn Herman into a cause célèbre, but it carefully tiptoes around the more compelling elephant in the tiny cell, namely, whether there’s a romantic aspect to their relationship? A fascinating flick as much about a possible miscarriage of justice as about a case of arrested development who looks like a little girl playing house with an imaginary mate.