Using Film to Fight for Justice

Herman Wallace may be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States: he’s spent more than 40 years in a six-by-nine-foot cell in Louisiana. Imprisoned in 1967 for a robbery he admits he committed, he was subsequently sentenced to life for a killing that he vehemently denies any involvement with.

My documentary film, Herman’s House, recounts the remarkable expression his struggle found in an unusual project proposed by artist Jackie Sumell. Imagining Wallace’s “dream home” began as a game, but it quickly became an interrogation of justice and punishment in America.

When I first told my parents almost six years ago that I was going to make a film about a man who has been unjustly imprisoned for four decades, they took it as an opening to advise me on my future. They were concerned about the lack of career security in my desire to pursue filmmaking. They cautiously suggested, “Wouldn’t it make more sense for you to go to law school so that you can defend people like Herman?”

I explained to them that Herman already had the best legal team in the country defending him and helping him navigate the circuitous appeals process. The very fact that he had been kept in solitary for 40 years for a crime he didn’t commit revealed the limits of the legal system. Film is another way to defend people and fight for justice.

Herman Wallace is one of an estimated 80,000 people being held in solitary confinement in the United States at this moment. It would be too simple to say that some single travesty of justice has made this possible. While Herman’s case represents a particular travesty—he is one of three Black Panther activists targeted and framed to quash their dissent—more than anything, Herman’s conditions of confinement are a reflection of America’s ongoing addiction to punishment and incarceration.

We as a society are all responsible for the thousands of people we keep in solitary cells and the over 2.3 million Americans behind bars. I don’t see how it is possible to change this situation without changing how we look at ourselves.

Herman and Jackie’s art project beautifully illustrates the contradiction embodied by a country that prides itself on being a land of dreams and opportunity while actually incarcerating more of its own citizens than any other nation on earth.  

Herman’s House is an effort to re-humanize at least one person behind bars: Herman Wallace. He is a brother, a mentor, an artistic collaborator, and most importantly for Jackie Sumell, a friend. My hope is that once we acknowledge the humanity of one person who we have been caging for decades, we can start recognizing the humanity of the others behind bars and break our addiction to punishment.

Herman’s House opens theatrically in New York City on April 19 and will be broadcast nationally July 8 on the acclaimed PBS series POV. To learn more about the art project visit hermanshouse.org.

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