A Room Without a View, Ever
“Herman’s House” is director Angad Singh Bhalla’s new film about the friendship that grows between artist Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace as they collaborate to build Mr. Wallace’s dream house while he is in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison. With more than 40 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell, Mr. Wallace is possibly the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States. Imagining Mr. Wallace’s “dream home” began as a game between the two and became an interrogation of justice and punishment in America. “Herman’s House” premiers on Public Broadcasting Service’s (PBS) “Point of View” (POV) in July.
Recently I sat down with Mr. Bhalla to talk about “Herman’s House” for response. What follows is a bit of our wide-ranging discussion delving into friendship, the role of artists and people of faith in social justice struggle, a critical analysis of the U.S. prison system and much more.
response: Who is Herman Wallace?
Mr. Bhalla: Herman is one of the Angola-3. Herman Wallace was born in the 1940s… in New Orleans, La., in the segregated South. He started off a criminal. He had robbed a bank and was in jail in the New Orleans Parish Prison where he met members of the New Orleans Chapter of the Black Panther Party. This was in the mid-1960s. The guards … thought they would put the Panthers with the roughest criminals. What ended up happening was the Panthers started educating and having study sessions in the jail and politicizing and radicalizing all these prisoners, and Herman was one of them. He was eventually sentenced to Angola State Prison for the bank robbery, but when he went up there it was with a political purpose to try and change what was one of the most violent prisons in America. At that time the prison was still segregated, and there were mass forms of sexual slavery happening. Herman along with others started the first prison chapter of the Black Panther Party and started organizing. …That was not something the prison liked. They were successful in ending some of the rampant prison rape, but they were also pushing up against some powerful interests within the prison establishment. In 1972 when a guard was murdered, the administration immediately put Herman, Albert Woodfox and Robert Hillary King — who was not even in Angola at the time of the murder — all into solitary confinement. Herman and Albert went on to be tried and convicted of this murder, which I believe they had nothing to do with, given the fact that there is very little evidence to connect them to it.
response: Why did you make his story the centerpiece of this film?
Mr. Bhalla: Herman is a symbol of a certain history that his country has of racism and a history of suppressing and crushing political dissent and organizing. He’s been in solitary since 1972 so that also makes his story remarkable. He’s survived longer than anyone else... .[He] has also said that keeping him in solitary confinement is an effort to try to break his spirit and his political will. For him, staying alive in solitary confinement is just one more act of resistance. He is still organizing, as much as he is able, from inside his prison cell, using the courts to question the legality of solitary confinement, for example. But also he is fighting through cultural forms, like his collaboration with Jackie Sumell. Once he saw the potential cultural impact of this art project, to build his dream house from a jail cell, he got totally behind it.
response: The film makes powerful statements about the nature and use of solitary confinement. With more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement in the United States, what do you want the audience to take away from this film?
Mr. Bhalla: When we look at how systems of oppression work, the first thing we have to do to allow 80,000 people to be in solitary is to dehumanize them. All the people in prison, you never hear them referred to as “people.” They are “convicts” or “criminals.” They don’t even exist as people, and once that happens, they are not like you and me. … So my actual goal was to help the audience see that these are people. My goal is really just to acknowledge that humanity exists in Herman in general but in all these people generally.
response: The relationship between Jackie and Herman is the focal point of the film. What do you think Jackie’s motivation is for taking on such an incredible, even crazy, project?
Mr. Bhalla: [That] points to the role of artists in our society. We need artists. We need people like Jackie. We need people to do things that are “crazy” because that pushes us. That is how we are going to open our eyes to different issues. For me as an artist, I also felt that this was a worthy story because it’s so unique. …Their relationship is not convenient in a way that can be boxed into a certain kind of dynamic. I think they both provide support to each other. That for me served the end purpose of trying to humanize Herman because we could learn about him as a human being through this friendship.
response: You’ve been involved in various social justice struggles as an activist and faith organizer. What’s the relationship between art and community organizing?
Mr. Bhalla: Change requires both. It requires a cultural shift where people start acknowledging problems and organizing takes it to another level. …Without shifts in culture, you would not have the space to have organizing discussions around policy. No one is going to want to hear a lecture and read a bunch of statistics and say, “Oh we need to change the situation.” You need a way to break through. At the same time, without the organizing you can present problems all you want, but you need people to actually say, “What do we do with these people we have kept in solitary for so long? What do we do with all the people in prison? What alternatives are there? How can we reallocate resources?” Those are important decisions we want to have happen through some collective dialogue, which is organizing. I love both. When you work in organizing, you are really working on what is possible in the current unfortunate political construct. But when I work on films I don’t have those constraints.
response: What role do people of faith have to play in struggles for justice?
Mr. Bhalla: As people of faith, you don’t have to work within the current dichotomy because that’s not necessarily your role. You can be thinking in a more prophetic way. …The role of people of faith is essential in all of these struggles because in the end these are moral questions. What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of treatment are we going to accept for our fellow human beings, regardless of what they have done or not done? Without the faith voice, we are never going to be asking the rights questions. Any issue that faces our society, whether it’s mass incarceration or something else, is a faith issue.
response: More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons and another 4.8 million are on parole and probation. How does focusing on solitary confinement illuminate the larger issues of the prison industrial complex?
Mr. Bhalla: Solitary confinement is often defined as the prison within the prison. The same problems we have with prisons, we have in a more acute form with the prison within the prison. The same racial imbalance in terms of the number of people who are incarcerated in America exists in solitary. People of color are put into solitary confinement at a higher rate than white prisoners. The same structural forces apply. Once you look at solitary, you are getting an extreme version of what the entire system is, which is, there is no rehabilitation if you’re in a cell 23 hours a day. There’s the same discrimination, and there’s the same profit motive too. …[At] the heart of it, solitary is immoral. All of the same problems we have with the prison system at large we have with the population in solitary. If we start there, we can begin to unravel the whole system. I don’t see how we are going to reform an entire prison system without dealing with the 80,000 people in solitary.
response: Throughout the film, we never see an image of Herman, we only hear his voice. Why?
Mr. Bhalla: First, I wanted the audience to be frustrated that you don’t get to see this guy because that’s the reality of solitary confinement. You don’t get to see people. The hope or intention was that the frustration would be projected toward the prison system that is keeping him in solitary confinement. …The other reason is that it forces the audience to imagine too. The process of the film is Herman imagining what life is like on the outside, what his house would look like, what it would be like to live outside of a cell. We also never show a prison cell, other than a model of one, because I wanted you to also have to imagine what it would be like to live inside of a prison. What does it feel like? What does it look like? Showing a picture of it would make imagining harder.
response: What can people do if they want to take action to end the use of solitary confinement?
Mr. Bhalla: We have links to organizations on our website: hermanshousethefilm.com. Most of the people in prison in America are in local and state jails. Most of the actions and campaigns we are hoping people get involved in are going to depend on what state they are in. There are very active campaigns around solitary in almost all 50 states. The American Civil Liberties Union is often involved with them in their local chapters as is the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which looks at this issue from a faith-based perspective.
Janis Rosheuvel is United Methodist Women’s executive for racial justice. Her office is at the Church Center for the United Nations in New York, N.Y.