Larry Cearly in a scene from "The House I Live In." (Abramorama )
Politically engaged filmmaking is nothing new for Eugene Jarecki, who has grappled with weighty themes in documentaries that include "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" and "Why We Fight." With "The House I Live In," a cogent look at America's failed war on drugs, his work reaches new depth and urgency.
It's a film as profoundly sad as it is enraging and potentially galvanizing, and it's one of the most important pieces of nonfiction to hit the screen in years.
Jarecki lays out a clear and compelling case demonstrating that U.S. policy against mind-altering substances and, more to the point, the people who use or sell them, amounts to a systematic scourge upon those with the least resources in this country — a war based on class and race.
Arguing this aspect of the case with eloquence are Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow," and, more scorchingly, David Simon, who has chronicled America's mean streets first as a reporter and then as creator of "The Wire." Traveling around the country, Jarecki also spoke with academics, physicians, journalists, convicts and cops.
The first-person specifics include his own. He interviews Nannie Jeter, the African American woman who was a second mother to him, caring for him and his siblings as an employee of his parents. Jarecki grew up with Nannie's kids and their cousins, not all of whom are still alive, and many of whom have been in and out of prison because of drugs.
"The House I Live In" doesn't overlook the matter of personal responsibility; it places that responsibility within a larger sociopolitical context, one that can be ignored only in the name of protecting the status quo. Nannie looks back with devastating regret at the price her children paid so that she could remain gainfully employed. And when she reveals why she left the South in the first place, she's tracing a life story defined in part by institutional injustice.
Jarecki's film is a call for fairness and for a reasoned, humane approach to a complex problem, one that over the decades has been drastically oversimplified, in the tradition of prohibition and punitive moralism.
One of the many incisive historical particulars that the film puts forth is the fact that Richard Nixon, whose administration launched the War on Drugs with a fusillade of tough-guy rhetoric, allotted more funds to treatment than to interdiction.
The increasingly hardhearted and unrealistic approach to addiction as a criminal rather than a health issue separates the United States from most developed countries and has produced the largest prison population in the world. Physician Gabor Maté offers his critique as an addiction specialist.
An Oklahoma warden points out the fallacy in locking up people not because they're dangerous and you fear them, but because, as he puts it, you're mad at them.
That anger has fueled a policy of mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately affects blacks and the underprivileged in general. Jarecki sketches an eye-opening history connecting the criminalization of drugs with the economic need to demonize the country's minorities.
Cutting through delusions of a post-racial America, the film is a searing report on the state of the union as an industrial (privatized) prison complex, built on a justice system that gives cops more incentive to rack up busts for nonviolent drug crimes than to pursue murderers and rapists.
Speaking to a young drug dealer facing a lengthy mandatory minimum sentence, and then to his father, a former dealer whose words give way to tears, the documentary goes to the heart of the matter: the human cost, and the question of what kind of society we want to live in.
'The House I Live In'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: At selected theaters