Title: The House I Live In
Director: Eugene Jarecki
A searing, stirring and deeply humanistic documentary look at the collateral damage and some of the perhaps unintended consequences of the United States’ decades-long “war on drugs,” Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In” is an emotionally shattering work, but also one that has a hefty, legitimate intellectual punching power. Suffused with a righteous anger that the filmmaker methodically turns up to a full boil, this Grand Jury Prize winner from this year’s Sundance Film Festival is a compelling portrait of failed social policy.
While the drug war is for many synonymous with the Reagan administration, it was actually formally launched under Richard Nixon. Since 1971, it’s cost more than $1 trillion and racked up 45 million arrests. The result? Of the 2.3 million people imprisoned in the United States, more than 500,000 are for nonviolent drug crimes. In the meantime, the rate of drug use has remained relatively constant, and in some arenas actually gone up.
Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) uses his own seemingly unlikely personal connection to the drug war as an in point. Jarecki grew up with Nannie Jeter, an African-American maid and caregiver of his parents who was like a second mother to him, and he played with Nannie’s kids and their cousins. Experiencing the loss of her son and others around him through this prism, Jarecki tries to square U.S. governmental policy with the facts of its disproportionate impact on the African-American community.
“The House I Live In” also has an array of powerfully informed and articulate interview subjects who have decades of research and experience in the field. This roster includes, probably most notably, author David Simon (creator of HBO’s “The Wire”), who spent years as a journalist covering Baltimore’s crime beat. He highlights in unnerving fashion the financial incentivization of the system as presently constituted; paid both in overtime for the number of arrests (due to extra processing time and paperwork), and, departmentally, in civil forfeiture, police departments operate on statistics, essentially. With prison beds to be filled and budgets in some cases needing to be supplemented, basic human nature frequently dictates targeting the lowest-hanging fruit.
The film really hits a groove, though, when it delves into mandatory minimum sentencing, and the legally mandated disparity in prison terms for crack and powder cocaine, which for decades stood at 100:1. (After intense pressure, this was finally, during President Obama’s tenure, trimmed… to a 18:1 ratio.) This and much other evidence point to a systematic war based on race and class, something further driven home by a historical overview of the criminalization of other drugs which were linked to different immigrant populations and ethnic minorities spanning time — from the opium dens of Chinese-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s to the popularity of marijuana with Mexican farmhands in the 1930s.
Those hard of heart will not want to cede the point above, but “The House I Live In” is no empty, reflexive work of pure liberal feeling – a charge often levied at the work of Michael Moore, say. It is filtered through a personal lens but rigorously researched, and compelling for its scope and the inclusivity of opinion of those (like judges, prison guards and inmates) themselves caught up in this maddening cycle with seemingly little bottom-line benefit. Jarecki’s film is a call for a reasoned, humane approach to a problem we have mis-prosecuted. It’s one of the year’s best documentaries, but also a work that needs the heft of citizen supporters behind it, because it might be able to help make a difference.
Written by: Brent Simon