From Bully to Detropia, this Academy Award season’s best documentary category is full of films that tackle timely and serious social issues. All of them are vastly important, but Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In is a documentary all Americans should see. It showcases America’s War on Drugs with a kind of frightening clarity that will trouble even the most anti-drug crusaders.
The film’s thesis posits that the War on Drugs is actually an unwinnable battle against the American people. What makes Jarecki’s film both unusual and immensely watchable is how the filmmaker begins with a personal focus and branches outward. The film is bookended by the story of his Black childhood caretaker Nannie. After moving with Jarecki’s family from Connecticut to New York City to care for the young filmmaker, Nannie spent more and more time away from her own children. Drug abuse shatters her family unit in her absence, leading to the eventual death of her son. Jarecki compares his life with Nannie’s and the ways the interplay of money, drugs, race, and class have laid the foundation for generations to come.
Jarecki’s approach is so compelling because it establishes the notion that we’re all connected in the American justice system, even if we don’t do drugs and haven’t been to prison. It personalizes his claims in a way that interviews with criminal justice experts, addiction experts, and psychologists cannot.
That said, the film boasts an impressive amount of interviews from a variety of players in the drug war. From The Wire creator David Simon, to low level drug dealers, each interview presents a significant aspect of Jarecki’s thesis.
Surprisingly enough, I found that the most compelling interviews came from people working within the criminal justice system. Hearing hardened police officers, federal judges, and prison wardens talk about how they don’t feel like they’re carrying out justice by locking up low level drug offenders is very persuasive.
While I initially went into the film partially buying the film’s premise, it’s important to note that the film can only serve as a jumping off point for viewers to establish their attitudes regarding America’s War on Drugs. While The House I Live In is an impressive and ambitious look into the subject, it might be too simplistic to really allow viewers to make critical opinions on the complex issues presented therein.
The Verdict: The House I Live In attempts to make a complicated issue personable and understandable. It’s an important film that will spark dialogue about the War on Drugs for years to come.
Release Date: October 5, 2012
Director: Eugene Jarecki
Starring: David Simon, Eugene Jarecki, Nannie Jeter