The House I Live In
Directed by Eugene Jarecki
Intermittently enlightening, this documentary about the war on drugs begins as a rapid-fire assortment of facts and faces. The talking heads are a high-octane blend, and many of the facts are pithy—The Wire’s David Simon is particularly adept at delivering money quotes—but nothing in this section will surprise anyone who’s paid more than cursory attention to the subject. The provocative thesis for which the data provides a groundwork just might, though.
A new way of looking at our mania for mass incarceration makes all those stats click into place in an intriguing new pattern. Jarecki’s thesis is that the war on drugs is really “a holocaust in slow motion,” as Simon puts it—a front for a war against poor people that is progressing, like all genocidal jihads, in five stages: identification, ostracization, confiscation [of property], concentration [into ghettos or prisons], and finally annihilation. The target or this war, Jarecki posits, is the poorest of our poor, that 15 percent or so of the population that our economy is not willing or able to make room for; the infrastructure it has created, which includes the world’s largest prison system, has become as much of a self-perpetuating system as our military-industrial complex.
The film muddies its own argument by shifting the outlines of the target it says we are drawing on our own people. Mostly, it makes the case that we are targeting African-Americans that are often so poor than they have no choice but to deal drugs. (“Going to sell drugs on the corner is the rational choice of people going to work for the only functioning company in a company town,” Simon says.) But it also traces our war on drugs back to immigrants who are seen as taking jobs from [white] Americans, arguing that it started with the Chinese who came here in the 19th century and were soon vilified as opium addicts.
Jarecki frames the film with his own family history, talking about the African-American family ties that his parents unintentionally helped to shred to when they hired Nannie Jeter, a single mother and an African American, to manage their household while her own children stayed too much alone, one son eventually turning to drugs. But Jarecki is no Steve James, and those parts feel tacked-on and superficial, well-meaning but not very insightful.
He’s not much better at dramatizing the personal parts of other people’s stories. The people he quotes often come and go before we ever quite figure out who they are or how they connect to the issue. But then comes the main exception, a sweet-looking young man named Anthony Johnson. When we first see him, he’s talking undefensively about his arrest for a small amount of cocaine, so it comes as a bit of a shock to see the TV news coverage of his arrest, which makes him out to be a scourge, a thug from the city come to prey on suburban youth. We hear his father, a tormented man who spent most of his son’s life in prison, talk about the drug dealers he idolized as a boy. (“Honestly, I loved them,” he says. “I loved them because when they came around, it was Christmas.”) And finally, we meet Anthony’s baby daughter and hear him wish he could be more a part of her life than his father was of his—a wish that cannot come true, thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It’s a touching family portrait, and it nails some of Jarecki’s main points: the demonization of the “wrong” kind of drug users, the socioeconomic factors that drive so many young people to drugs, and the destructive effects of our draconian drug laws.
Opens October 5