- Directed by Eugene Jarecki
The United States has 5% of the world population, but 25% of the world’s incarcerated prisoners. African Americans make up 13% of the country’s population, and an estimated 13% of its drug users, yet 90% of those jailed for non-violent drug offenses are black.
Those are just some of the unsettling statistics in Eugene Jarecki’s sobering and extremely opinionated documentary on the War on Drugs, The House I Live In. And statistics aren’t half of the story. We also hear from dealers, addicts, prisoners, cops, historians,and prison guards, all of whom are sick and tired of a "war" that has cost the American people over a trillion dollars and has done far more harm than the drugs, themselves. We also get to know the maid and nanny who helped raise Jarecki, and listen to an excellent overview of the problem by The Wire‘s David Simon.
Make no mistake about it: This is a major American problem, and one that’s set up to be self-perpetuating. Cops are judged by how many arrests they make, and the easiest way to arrest people is to sweep through a poor minority neighborhood and search anyone who looks suspicious. Mandatory sentencing laws force judges to put people away for decades, and thus feed an industrial prison complex that many small towns and big companies depend on economically. When the prisoners get out, their officially banned from public housing and effectively banned from getting a job, so they go back to dealing–or using–drugs. And no politician would dare open themselves up to charges of being soft on crime.
But I’m here to tell you about a movie, not a social problem.
No reasonable person could possibly call The House I Live In unbiased. In traditional agitprop fashion, Jarecki takes a clear stand and lines up his interviews and images to support that stand. The other side’s arguments are simply not considered. I’m giving this film a B because the film is reasonably well made, Jarecki’s argument is strong, and one that I believe in (hey, I get to be biased, too). But I won’t pretend that there is nuance here.
When I call the film "reasonably well made," I mean that it’s briskly edited, seldom boring, and that many of the interviews reveal the humanity of the subjects. But nothing in Jarecki ‘s technique stands out. You won’t find the humanity of Werner Herzog or the historical perspective of Ken Burns. Or the humor that makes Michael Moore’s equally biased docs so entertaining.
A bigger problem: The House I Live In leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Jarecki points out that drug use hasn’t gone down since the "war" officially began in 1971, but he doesn’t ask anyone if drug use might have gone up without the war. Nor does he examine how other advanced democracies manage the same problems without our huge incarceration numbers. At no point does he point his camera at a law-and-order politician and get his (or her) side of the story.
Jarecki only seems interested in his side of the story. He wants you to agree with him and hopefully become an activist for the cause. It’s a worthwhile cause, but the result is a limited movie.
The title, a metaphor for America, comes from a left-wing patriotic song written during World War II. Paul Robeson’s recording of the song plays during the closing credits.