The titular abode of Herman's House is both an actual structure and a freestanding metaphor. In both cases, there's ample room for exploration. Angad Bhalla's gently affecting documentary follows the efforts of New York-based artist Jackie Sumell to design a model of a dream house to the specifications of Herman Wallace, a former member of the Black Panthers who has been living in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary for nearly 40 years. (For those keeping track at home, his is the longest stretch of any prisoner in the history of the American penal system.) What begins as an art installation, however, eventually becomes a full-scale construction project, as Sumell heads down South to try and actually build the thing from the ground up as a community youth space.
One of the points made by the expert talking heads in Herman's House is that Wallace's idealized living area is rife with structural implausibilities: not quite as weird as the Overlook Hotel, perhaps, but a little bit shaky. This is a forgivable problem since the architect has been living in a 54-square-foot cell for four decades. It's to Bhalla's credit that he turns this fact into a kind of organizing principle for the film, juxtaposing the impossible blueprint of Wallace's dream house with the setbacks suffered by Sumell, which are numerous.
The first half of Herman's House gives us the back story of Wallace's incarceration (convicted of murder on flimsy evidence) and of the beginning of his correspondence with Sumell, who attended a speech by paroled ex-Panther Robert King and couldn't stop thinking about the torturous aspects of solitary confinement. Her indignation is shared by the filmmaker: Bhalla means to critique a criminal justice system that could sentence a man to a lifetime of isolation, without much in the way of proof. Yet the film's treatment of the case is itself brisk and even cursory – understandable given that it's telling a different story, but also a bit of a missed opportunity. The dynamic between the noble victim and the socially engaged artist working on his behalf is familiar. Sumell's gallery show, with the artist triumphant inside a scale reproduction of Wallace's jail cell, could have easily served as a rousing climax.
Except that Herman's House takes its cue from Sumell and keeps going beyond the approbation. The artist shows that she's all in by continuing her association with Wallace beyond the completion of her acclaimed installation. She decamps to New Orleans to attempt to raise money and secure land for a Southern-style manor, which proves expensive and impractical. It also makes this habitually solitary woman feel even more like an outsider. "You're a white girl from New York," chides one of Wallace's former Black Panther colleagues, neatly encapsulating the fish-out-of-water nature of Sumell's quest.
Sumell is a sympathetic figure, but also thorny and idiosyncratic (her adolescent passion was full-contact football), and so resists the role of a standard-issue crusader. Wallace, meanwhile, doesn't appear at all, except in photographs and as a disembodied voice on recorded phone conversations. And yet he still comes across as something more vivid than a symbol of the penal population's invisibility; his optimism and magnanimity under the circumstances seem like hard-earned virtues rather than a coping mechanism. Herman's House is conventionally produced, but it does right by its two uncommon subjects.