Herman's House

"What kind of house does a man who has been imprisoned in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?" This film captures the remarkable creative journey and friendship of Herman Wallace, one of the Angola 3, and artist Jackie Sumell while examining the injustice of prolonged solitary confinement.


"To build this house is to build my soul" - Herman Wallace

The House That Herman Built follows the friendship and creative collaboration between Black Panther Herman Wallace and artist Jackie Sumell as they try to manifest the home Herman designs from within solitary cell he has inhabited for the past 38 years.

This film interweaves 3 concurrent narrative threads: the development of Herman and Jackie's art project through the process of designing and attempting to build Herman's house, the unmasking of the experience of solitary confinement, and the remarkable relationship that Herman and Jackie develop.


"As an artist I knew that the only way I could help Herman get out of prison was to get him to dream" - Jackie Sumell

Jackie first learned about Herman's plight at an art gallery lecture. After writing him for over a year, she realized she had to do something more. She decided to ask Herman this simple question:

"What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?"

Herman's answer to this question provides the primary narrative thread for our film.

Through over 500 letters we see Herman's design ideas crystallize, including a kitchen with 6 microwave ovens and an underground bunker. We watch how, with Jackie's help, initial sketches in letters transform into digital renderings, a scale model, and eventually construction blueprints.

These elements form the basis for the resulting art installation titled "The House That Herman Built" which we view on display in galleries in New York, London, and New Orleans. After seeing the attention that the project brings to Herman's situation, Herman and Jackie are inspired to build a community center for at risk youth. They decide to build it based on Herman's designs and locate it in his hometown of New Orleans.

As Jackie meets with real estate agents, contractors, architects city officials and potential neighbors in her attempts to get the construction work going, she comes face to face with society's feelings about crime and punishment in the city with one of the world's highest incarceration rates. One real estate agent declares that she sees no problem with living next to a former convict and notes that: "if he gets in my way, you got guns."

We watch as Jackie and Herman debate about how to acquire land and the best location for the structure in New Orleans. By the end of the film, we may or may not witness a groundbreaking, but we do see the mission of the community center being realized as Jackie begins after school arts programming for kids in the neighborhood where the community center will be built.


"If I make 3 steps forward I'm going to touch the door, if I turn an about face at any place in my cell I bump into something" - Herman Wallace

Just as Jackie asks visitors to her art installation to sit in a life size model of Herman's cell, the film asks us first to imagine the experience, and then to consider the inhumanity, of long-term solitary confinement.

There is evidence that Herman and the other activist convicted of the same murder are being kept in solitary to prevent them from returning to their political organizing work with other inmates. Through Herman, we also meet other former inmates who were placed in solitary for purely punitive reasons. These former inmates recount the devastating impacts of prolonged solitary detention and the difficult task of re-entering society once they were released from prison.

Prison architects explain how they try to design prisons in order to minimize the psychological effects of confinement. These architects further reveal how Herman's imagination has been warped by his experience, pointing out revealing clues to his psychology through his specific house design.

Herman and two fellow panther activists file a civil suit against the state of Louisiana, in which they charge that their long-term solitary sentences amount to cruel and unusual punishment. In response, prison authorities release Herman release from solitary in 2008 and back into the general prison population. Though this period outside solitary lasts only a few months, we listen to Herman describe how his joints react to more space, and the joy of seeing and speaking to Albert Woodfox, his fellow co-defendant and best friend, after so many years apart.

Herman is back in solitary as the film ends. We see how debilitating this reversal of fortunes is for Herman as he suffers a near stroke during a visit with Jackie, caused in part by the shock to his body of the return to such a tiny space.


"Whether I live in the house or not makes no difference...it's the symbol of what this house is all about" - Herman Wallace

Jackie and Herman's unique relationship drives the film forward and makes complex issues accessible. Going beyond the stereotype of the privileged outside activist trying to lift up the prisoner with little hope, we see how Jackie and Herman both rely on each other and their shared project to get through adversity.

Shortly after they initiate their project in 2003, Jackie loses her mother. It is Herman's support that helps her move forward and ultimately makes her even more committed to seeing his dream realized. We witness Herman's sister Vickie open her home up to Jackie to thank her for all that she is doing for her brother. In turn Herman turns to Jackie to help Vickie when Vickie's home is destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

As we learn about Jackie's difficult upbringing, it emerges that her friendship with Herman is one of the few relationships she can count on. They don't always agree, but they respect each other as they are forced to learn about the very different challenges each face on either side of the prison walls. This is the story of a remarkable friendship between two unlikely partners, whose work envisions what modern prisons could be and illustrates the liberating power of the human imagination.


In production

Watch trailer

Production team