The House I Live In review: incarceration nation

The House I Live In green light

Whatever your politics, you will find things to astonish and flabbergast and enrage you in what is perhaps the most cool-headed examination of America’s relationship to illegal drugs ever.
I’m “biast” (pro): I am very anti the “War on Drugs”

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Maybe you know nothing about America’s “War on Drugs” — which has a good chance of being the case, as documentarian Eugene Jarecki demonstrates here: most Americans think it’s something that’s happening in Mexico or South America, not in Detroit or Little Rock or Harlem. Maybe you’re like me, and already believe that the “War on Drugs” is a pernicious lie that has wasted billions of dollars and turned the U.S. into a gulag state, imprisoning people for life for possession of a small amount of intoxicants for personal use. Maybe you’re even totally for waging war on mind-altering substances.

Wherever you are along the spectrum, you will find things to astonish and flabbergast and enrage you in The House I Live In, Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for 2012 and perhaps the most cool-headed, most apolitical, most objective examination of America’s relationship to illegal drugs ever.

It appears as if it would be precisely the opposite, at first glance. This starts as a very personal story for Jarecki Freakonomics, as he delves into the life of Nannie Jeter, who was “like a second mother” to him growing up; her name actually is “Nannie,” but she was a nanny to Jarecki and his siblings, and a housekeeper for the family, and really just part of the Jarecki family; Eugene played with her kids, too. But even such close proximity didn’t give Jarecki as full an awareness of her life as it might have, not the least reason is that Jarecki is white and Jeter is black, and in many ways, they live in very different worlds. She has lost family members to drugs, and as Jarecki comes to understand — onscreen, as we watch — her life and what she has been through, he uses that as a prism through which to explore how the “War on Drugs” came to be, its historical precedents, why it impacts black Americans so disproportionately, and just how and why it is so scarily entrenched today that it almost looks unfixable.

Talking about drugs — as Jarecki does here with a host of experts, perhaps most notably David Simon, former journalist and creator of the acclaimed “War on Drugs” drama The Wire — is like fighting a hydra: you think you’ve chopped its head off, and six more with vicious snapping jaws emerge. Poverty, racism, economic decline, personal desperation, unintended social consequences to (perhaps) good and honest legal and political intentions. It’s impossible not to feel as if there are no solutions for the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into — we’ve spent a trillion dollars and imprison more people than any other nation, and drug use remains exactly as prevalent as ever — but Jarecki breaks it down and makes the mess understandable, as least, and underscores some particular horrors even the most informed of us have likely been unaware of. Like how more black men are caught up in the criminal-justice system than were enslaved in 1850. Like how drug dealers are role models and leaders in poor communities, and why it is a rational decision to deal drugs in a community where there simply is no other work. Even if you’re a hardline proponent of law and order, you will perhaps be stunned to learn how police are incentivized to spend their time on low-level nonviolent drug offenders while serious violent crimes — murders and rapes and armed robberies — go unsolved.

One semi-positive thing we learn, something that could help bring the madness to an end, is that, as Simon says, “everybody involved hates what’s going on.” Not just those imprisoned with no chance of parole over a relatively minor offense, obviously, but also cops and prosecutors and prison guards and judges. But the conclusion that The House I Live In ultimately comes to is shocking, an audacious suggestion that perhaps the “War on Drugs” isn’t a failure, but a success of a different kind.

It’s a suggestion that is all too plausible, and by the end of the film, you realize how Jarecki has been building his case all along, in a horrifying and powerfully perceptive way, one that, we see finally, has the momentum of history behind it. The House I Live In is the house more than 300 million people live in: it’s the United States, the entire nation, not just as a geographical place but as a culture. The mirror Jarecki holds up to us is fair, but the reflection it shows is ugly.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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