The House I Live In

The House I Live In1As America remains embroiled in conflict overseas, a less visible war is taking place at home, costing countless lives, destroying families, and inflicting untold damage on future generations of Americans. Over forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever before. Filmed in more than twenty states, THE HOUSE I LIVE IN captures heart-wrenching stories from individuals at all levels of America’s War on Drugs. From the dealer to the grieving mother, the narcotics officer to the senator, the inmate to the federal judge, the film offers a penetrating look inside America’s longest war, offering a definitive portrait and revealing its profound human rights implications.

While recognizing the seriousness of drug abuse as a matter of public health, the film investigates the tragic errors and shortcomings that have meant it is more often treated as a matter for law enforcement, creating a vast machine that feeds largely on America’s poor, and especially on minority communities. Beyond simple misguided policy, The House I Live In examines how political and economic corruption have fueled the war for forty years, despite persistent evidence of its moral, economic, and practical failures.

REVIEW: ‘The House I Live In’ review: Documentary offers damning examination of U.S. war on drugs

As America remains embroiled in conflict overseas, a less visible war is taking place at home, costing countless lives, destroying families, and inflicting untold damage on future generations of Americans. Over forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever before. Filmed in more than twenty states, The House I Live In captures heart-wrenching stories from individuals at all levels of America’s War on Drugs. From the dealer to the grieving mother, the narcotics officer to the senator, the inmate to the federal judge, the film offers a penetrating look inside America’s longest war, offering a definitive portrait and revealing its profound human rights implications.

While recognizing the seriousness of drug abuse as a matter of public health, the film investigates the tragic errors and shortcomings that have meant it is more often treated as a matter for law enforcement, creating a vast machine that feeds largely on America’s poor, and especially on minority communities. Beyond simple misguided policy, The House I Live In examines how political and economic corruption have fueled the war for forty years, despite persistent evidence of its moral, economic, and practical failures.

Like the rest of the children of the 1980s, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki was taught to “just say no” when it came to drugs. Now he’s just asking “why.”

Specifically, why is it that — nearly 45 years after President Nixon first coined the phrase “war on drugs” — we, as one of the richest nation on Earth, have been unable to turn the tide in it? Why is it, also, that there’s zero urgency to change a system that has transformed America into the most incarcerated country on Earth? And, most importantly, why are we all simply sitting by and doing nothing as an uncaring and unapologetically racist system decimates an entire segment of the population?

These questions — and other, similarly troubling ones — are at the crux of Jarecki’s vital new documentary “The House I Live In,” a devastating and impossible-to-deny indictment of the American criminal justice system.

Expertly researched, brilliantly argued and masterfully assembled, it is also easily the documentary of the year — and perhaps the most important one of the past several years — as it not only defines the problem, but explains the root of it and offers real solutions.

To be clear, what “The House I Live In” is not is some lefty rant about personal liberty from a camera-wielding California dreamer who wants to be able to smoke all the weed he wants without worrying about being hassled by The Man, man. Rather, this is a film about social justice (or, more to the point, social injustice) and how American drug laws seem designed to keep certain segments of the population marginalized.

And by “certain” people I mean black people. I mean Hispanic people. I mean trailer-park residents. More specifically, I mean people of lower socio-economic backgrounds for whom the American dream seems like just that: a dream — nothing tangible or attainable or the slightest bit real.

“It would be one thing if it was Draconian and it worked, but it’s Draconian and it doesn’t work — and it just leads to more,” says David Simon, who — before becoming the creator of “The Wire” and “Treme” — spent a decade as a journalist covering America’s drug epidemic.

His is also the loudest and most forceful voice in “The House I Live In,” with his clearly framed arguments and his knack for sound-bite-friendly turns of phrase. It’s by no means the only credible voice in the film, however. Jarecki enlists a litany of noteworthy experts, from Harvard professors to criminal justice experts to addiction experts to law-enforcement officers to speak on the issue. Despite their disparate backgrounds, nearly every one seems to agree that the system as we know it is not operating as it was intended.

At least let’s hope it’s not operating as it intended — because, as Jarecki makes clear, if this is what was intended, then we as a nation have serious questions to answer about ourselves.

“The drug war,” Simon says in the film’s sobering and brilliantly articulated third act, “is a Holocaust in slow-motion.”

Those are harsh and scary words, but — as he does with each of his other assertions in his eye-opening film — Jarecki goes on to back them up. By the end, he ends up pulling back the cover on a destructive, class-based gambit that, in the name of assuaging middle-class fears, ends up destroying lives – and, indeed, whole communities — while feeding a steady diet of warm bodies and fat profits to that most un-American of American institutions: the prison-industrial complex.

As suggested by that less-than-self-explanatory title, “The House I Live In” is also a very personal film for Jarecki, whose launching pad for making it was the conflicted feelings generated by the realization that he and his white siblings were living very different lives than their black childhood friends.

More importantly, though, his film also stands to summon deeply personal feelings in his audiences. That’s because it’s all but impossible to deny his arguments. As a result, even if one can divorce his or her emotions from the stories of the prison-jumpsuit-wearing case studies held up by Jarecki as emblematic of a broken system, it’s hard not to feel duped by the decades of propaganda that has girded the war on drugs — and that has prevented any substantial questioning of it.

So, no, “The House I Live In” is not a comfortable film to consider in any respect, but without discomfort it’s hard to feel anger – and without anger, it’s hard to imagine that anything will ever be done about it.

Mike Scott, Times-Picayune