Six years ago, Eugene Jarecki took on the military-industrial complex in Why We Fight, an incisive, damning film. Now, with The House I Live In, he’s tackling another powerful American institution: the War on Drugs. When people hear that phrase these days, they’re more likely to reflexively think of Mexico or Colombia than any sort of home front. But the home front is just as if not more active than ever, and Jarecki is determined to bring it into the light.
In the forty years since Nixon coined the term “War on Drugs” and instigated the first offensive, a trillion dollars have been spent, over forty-five million people have been arrested, and America’s drug problem has not improved in the least. In the meantime, we have the world’s highest incarceration rate (you might have heard that our prison population recently surpassed that of the Russian gulags at their peak), accounting for twenty-five percent of Earth’s inmates. Impressive considering the US only makes up five percent of the population.
But it’s easy to throw around statistics, no matter how damning they are. The human cost of those numbers can be harder to understand, but Jarecki knows how to make it visible. He has a personal stake in this issue and interviews his beloved childhood nanny (Named Nanny. Really), whose addict son died of HIV contracted from an infected needle. He finds other intimate examples of far-reaching policies affecting people on a personal scale, on both sides of the law. He visits a man sentenced to twenty years in jail for dealing a paltry amount of cocaine (the mandatory minimum, according to law), an Oklahoma guard with a surprising amount of insight about the practices in fighting the War, Rhode Island narcotics officers, and a New York dealer who I swear is a real-life version of Snoop Pearson from The Wire*.
In fact, much of this film reads like a study companion to The Wire. So it’s no surprise that the show’s creator, David Simon, is on hand to give his opinion, and he is most welcome here. While Jarecki’s voice is strongest in the film, as he frames his exploration through this topic as a personal journey, Simon is the second-most prominent. He is the guide, the biggest and best expert on hand. There might be other people who know more about this subject, but no one can articulate the many problems here better than Simon, who explains things in a way that’s simple but never, ever talks down to anyone. There are many other smart people saying smart things here as well, of course, helping to draw a picture (or perhaps it would be more appropriate to describe it as a pin-and-thread conspiracy board) of this War for the audience.
There’s a certain, unofficial “template” to documentaries like this: a predictable blend of talking heads, historical footage, contemporary sound bites, statistical graphics, and on-the-street footage. This movie doesn’t break or even stretch the formula, but it exploits it to maximum effect. Still, it doesn’t feel terribly different from most other docs of its kind. It also won’t give you much information you didn’t already know if you’re familiar at all with the subject. But the way the film is able to condense all the important beats of this phenomenon, as well as put a human face on it, makes it feel utterly vital regardless.
Just like The Wire, The House I Live In works from an inside-the-onion approach, beginning with one small incident (in this case, the death of Nanny’s son), and slowly uncovering the outside factors that led to its occurrence. The nature of this beast is such that the further Jarecki digs, the larger the scope of the film becomes. The War on Drugs encompasses not just drugs and crime but race, class, economics, politics, media, and more. It’s a topic large enough to become unwieldy, but he juggles the various story and issue threads masterfully.
And it’s when the answers start coming that this film is at its greatest yet most troubling. When you chip away at the political posturing and expose the facts behind this War, you are confronted with many ugly aspects of American society. You find ignorance and callousness at both institutional and cultural levels. You see the incredible racism that pervades the system. An overwhelmingly disproportionate number of minorities are the ones prosecuted for drug-related crime. Minorities do not consume drugs in any greater quantity than white people. But it’s not even a race issue so much as it is a class issue. As Simon puts it in simple, haunting terms: this is a way for the government to simultaneously eliminate and make money off of the bottom fifteen percent of society. And the recession has shown that injustice is colorblind when it comes to poor, desperate people.
Because that’s who make up the vast majority of drug users and sellers. Not the cartoonish villains portrayed by television shows and PSA’s, but ordinary people pushed into a corner by circumstance. And the people enforcing these unjust laws aren’t fascists or racists or any other kind of negative –ists, either; they’re just people doing their jobs. This isn’t so much a case of Jarecki ensuring his film is “balanced” (docs don’t have to be balanced, and this one doesn’t pretend to), as it is recognizing where the real problem lies. If he demonized the police, even the one who suggests sterilizing poor black women as a countermeasure to crime, he would be blaming a symptom instead of the sickness, which is exactly the misconception he’s fighting here.
And what is the sickness? The answer to that is the most disturbing one of all. In peeling away the layers, Jarecki ultimately finds that the War on Drugs may be in nature nothing more than a new manifestation of ancient human tendencies to demonize and destroy the “others” in society. I was rolling my eyes when the movie began with Jarecki recounting how all his grandparents came to America to escape anti-Semitism in Europe, but by the end I realized that calling the War on Drugs a kind of holocaust isn’t a reaffirmation of Godwin’s Law at all. This is a fire fed by the blind fear and apathy of normal people – combined with the willingness of corporations and politicians to take advantage of it for financial gain. The prospects that this will change any time soon are bleak, and the perfunctory call for action at the end of the film feels hopeless. But that isn’t the end; the end belongs to Nanny.
The House I Live In is about cycles: national cycles of hatred and oppression, economic cycles of marginalization and exploitation, and generational cycles of poverty and helplessness. Fittingly, the film itself is cyclical. After pursuing its subject to the highest echelons of the government, it returns to the person it began with. Nanny embodies the “Other America,” the America left behind, the America that suffers most from the devastation of drug addiction, and yet’s blamed and persecuted for the problem. She cuts through all the oblique statistics and expert prognostications with a simple, gut wrenching statement: “I miss my son.” That alone would make this film a better argument against the current drug policy than all the hours of academic debate in the world.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
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*Yes, I know Snoop Pearson is a real person, and her character inherited many of her characteristics (besides, you know, the part about killing people and hiding their bodies in abandoned houses). You know what I mean.