In “The House I Live In,” documentarian Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) tackles the legacy of the US-led war on drugs with a mixture of fuzzy personal theorizing and devastating reportorial impact. The movie’s much less partisan than it seems: I can’t imagine any viewer of any political stripe denying that decades of anti-drug laws have resulted in a massive prison population while failing utterly to make a dent in drug use. Jarecki (the most prominent of a clan of filmmakers that include his brothers, Nicholas and Andrew) wants to know how we got here and what’s really going on, and if his film takes a while to focus, it eventually becomes the conversation starter the subject desperately needs.
The director’s roster of interview subjects is impressively varied, from a Yonkers street dealer to a New Mexico border marshal, from an Oklahoma prison guard to a doctor of clinical neuroscience. There are Harvard professors, a US district court judge, and — pithiest of all — David Simon, producer of TV’s “Homicide” and “The Wire” and a reporter for the Baltimore Sun for over a decade. Yet Jarecki’s decision to repeatedly come back to his own childhood caregiver, Nanny Jeter (that’s her real name), and the ruin drugs have made of her family, is a personal choice that’s moving but ultimately tangential to the argument he’s making.
That argument, developed with cold logic in the movie’s second half, is that recreational drugs like opium, marijuana, and cocaine were tolerated, even commercialized, in America until they were tied to immigrant groups who threatened to take white jobs: the Chinese in the late 1800s, Mexicans in the 1930s, blacks during the Great Migration to northern cities. Criminalization enabled incarceration and control of the “other,” a process that continued into the crack epidemic of the 1980s and the blue-collar meth-lab culture of today.
Without apologies for lousy individual decisions, “The House I Live In” shows how government policies like the FDR-era Federal Housing Act led to racial redlining and the rise of ghettoes, how the denial of services to and industrial flight from those ghettoes created a vacuum in which drug-dealing was often the only functioning economy, and how that cycle has been repeated in the poor white communities of the recent economic fallout. Jarecki has his experts — that Oklahoma prison guard, a self-styled “law-and-order guy” named Mike Carpenter, is among the most articulate — draw connections between a national prison infrastructure that supports entire towns and needs continual feeding and a remarkably punitive system of laws that target non-violent lower-class offenders. Asks Simon with ripe sarcasm, “Let’s just get rid of the bottom 15 percent of America. In fact, let’s see if we can make money off them. At that point, why don’t we just kill the poor?”
“The House I Live In” amasses statistics to undergird its point that the war on drugs is in fact a war on race. African Americans make up 13 percent of cocaine users and 90 percent of the prison population. Until recently, the penalty for possessing crack cocaine was 100 times stiffer than for powdered cocaine; under a new law, it’s “only” 18 times harsher. (The difference between the two is water, baking soda, and heat.) There are more blacks in prison today than there were slaves in 1850 America. And so on. When Jarecki tags along with a pair of Providence vice cops who wearily admit to racial profiling as a matter of course, we see two tiny cogs in a machine whose size is almost beyond imagining.
What’s to be done? While “The House I Live In” points out that drug treatment programs took up two-thirds of Richard Nixon’s anti-drug budget and are now a fraction of that, the movie doesn’t provide answers so much as dare us to ask the hard questions and work up a good froth of righteous indignation. It begs us to wonder why we’re so scared of drugs and what it is (and who it is) we’re really afraid of.
As for change — in our current drug laws and the larger thinking behind them — that’s up to us rather than politicians who are required by spinelessness and election cycles to “talk tough” on crime. I’m wary of implying that it’s your civic duty to see “The House I Live In,” but — guess what — it is. And see it with someone whose views are different from your own. We’re going to need everyone to help get us out of this mess.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.