While the presentation here may be lacking, with some standard documentary tropes used throughout, the subject matter alone makes this essential viewing.
The House I Live In
With the US’ recent election legalizing marijuana in Washington and Colorado, it appears that the American public’s perception towards drugs (or specifically one drug) has changed significantly over the last decade. Ten years ago it would have been nearly impossible for those two states to pass the same proposition, and it probably would have been much harder to make The House I Live In. Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, a look into the harmful effects of America’s War on Drugs over the last four decades, has needed to be made for a long time. Luckily it has finally arrived, and hopefully the topics it brings up won’t fall on deaf ears.
Jarecki starts things by focusing on his childhood nanny (whose actual name is Nannie) and the impact drugs have had on her family. Using Nannie’s experiences as a springboard, Jarecki goes across the country looking at how other people’s lives have been affected by the government’s drug war. What he finds is a system that relies heavily on racial discrimination and the suffering of others to maintain the status quo, but more disturbingly finds out what the future will hold if the same practices are kept in place.
The hokey opening involving Jarecki learning about racial oppression through his black caretaker (much in the same way Emma Stone learns about segregation in The Help) suggests a cheap and shallow look into the film’s subject matter, but thankfully he mostly lets other people do the talking. The most prominent talking head is David Simon who reported on drug crime for over a decade before creating the television series The Wire. Anyone who has seen Simon speak knows he isn’t one to mince words, and Jarecki smartly uses him to explain the documentary’s larger points in his blunt, no-bullshit style. It won’t be hard to find people who can voice their criticisms against America’s War on Drugs, but only Simon would have the balls to call it a “holocaust in slow-motion.”
Other people from various areas of the drug trade are looked at. Police officers who busted drug dealers on COPS years ago now wonder if what they’re doing even makes a difference. Drug dealers explain how people in underdeveloped neighborhoods usually turn to dealing to make a living (it’s more complex than just saying no). People busted for drug-related crimes point out the absurdity of mandatory sentencing for non-violent drug offenders. Prisoners and prison guards talk about the relationship between America’s incarceration rate (the highest in the world) and how profitable the prison industry has become. All of these examples come together to show a massive system dedicated to nothing but human suffering.
But the most fascinating and terrifying information comes from the Drug War’s past and future. A historian explains how, throughout America’s history, new laws banning drugs were heavily influenced by racial factors. California’s ban on opium relating to an influx of Chinese immigrants is one of many examples given, with the association of African-Americans and crack-cocaine use being a more recent example. Today, Jarecki uses the widespread distribution of meth to make his point: the War on Drugs has become such a massive system that it’s transitioning into one of class discrimination instead of race. When the same historian starts to explain the similarities between the Drug War and the lead-up to genocides in the past, the similarities are chilling.
Hopefully, with public opinion becoming more relaxed towards drugs over the years, the predictions given here won’t become a reality. As the drug war becomes bigger, more people are discovering that the ‘tough on crime’ mentality is doing more harm than good in the long run. While the presentation here may be lacking, with some standard documentary tropes used throughout, the subject matter alone makes this essential viewing if one has the chance to see it.