$1 trillion dollars have been spent over the past forty years on The War On The Drugs, causing a 705% increase in the American prison population since 1973. And perhaps most bracing of all, while African-Americans only make up 13% of the population, and 14% of its drug users, they account for 56% of those behind bars. These are just some of the infuriating statistics about The War On Drugs that come to light in Eugene Jarecki‘s “The House I Live In.” And while it’s messily put together, with a sprawling and at times unfocused narrative that often gets in the way of itself, it doesn’t deny the power of the facts Jarecki brings to bear on a misguided program that hasn’t stopped the demand for drugs, that has disenfranchised the poor and minorities, and created an expensive prison industry.
Jarecki uses Nannie Jeter as the launch pad for his film. The Jarecki family housekeeper and caregiver since he was child, Nannie was an integral part of the household, and helped raise him and his brothers. But over the years, Jarecki has watched as various members of Nannie’s family have fallen victim to the cycle of drugs that has prevented them from moving forward in their lives. It’s a bit of an odd framing device, and the first person narration that dips in and out of the movie makes “The House I Live In” seem more like a personal fact-finding mission and less like the well-researched and composed exposé that it is at its best. Jarecki tries to blend both of those approaches, but it winds up being jarring, where a more impersonal, standard presentation would have made the already powerful information stand out even more.
To pinpoint exactly why The War On Drugs has failed, we must first start with what was done right. It was actually Richard Nixon who first blew the trumpet for battle, but what many may be surprised to learn is that in his original plan, two thirds of the funding went to rehabilitation programs. But unfortunately, rehabilitation programs don’t make for good campaign copy, so as this plan passed from President to President, each got tougher on the policies contained within, promising swifter action and more arrests. So what do we have now? Police departments whose budgets increase by the number of arrests they make, and draconian sentencing laws, even for minor and non-violent offenses, that make it exceedingly difficult for those convicted to try and turn their lives around. And despite all of these efforts, illegal drugs in America still represent a 10 to 16 billion dollar industry, with rates of use having hardly been affected despite the best efforts of authorities.
So where does that leave us? “The House I Live In” makes it clear that a solution is as complicated as the system and politics that continues to maintain an unjust status quo. But Jarecki overreaches, and unfortunately gets caught up in the same over-the-top rhetoric that politicians have used to set up the current social and legal structure that those profiled in the excellently researched doc are fighting against. Jarecki strains to make the case that The War On Drugs is a new kind of Holocaust, bookending the documentary with a rather broad thesis, laying out that certain minorities and lower class people are being systemically prosecuted. And while there is a strong argument to be made, invoking that kind of imagery does little in spurring discussions of how to move past it.
One also wishes the film had a better narrative foothold. Between the story of Nannie and her family, the tale of young Anthony Johnson who is facing an extraordinary minimum sentence, and visits with beat cops, border guards, judges, lawyers, journalists (including “The Wire” creator David Simon whose insights are fascinating) and more, the movie can feel a little all over the place at times. But what’s learned and expressed leaves a lasting impression, and that’s due to the extensive array of experts in all arenas on hand that create a multi-faceted study of a complex subject. And so even if the throughline feels a bit frayed in places, the depth of the material keeps it all moving along.
“The House I Live In” essentially presents a well-intentioned mission that has become seriously misguided, manhandled, and is caught in a tight web of conflicting interests, none of which seem to be thinking of real solutions to addiction, dependency and the cycle of poverty and crime that grips so many underserved inner city communities. There are no easy answers, and that is perhaps the biggest wake up call of all, but by starting to realize that this problem touches all of us either directly or indirectly, only then we can truly move forward to ending The War On Drugs, whose biggest toll has been on those caught in the crossfire. [B]