What was Nixon thinking when he declared America’s “war on drugs”? Forty years and $1 trillion later, director Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) takes inventory of the true consequences of this losing battle in “The House I Live In,” a ballsy mix of interviews and editorializing that’s daring enough to question a costly crackdown that has long had the public’s support. This essential-viewing docu-essay, which alarmingly likens current policies with Germany’s pre-Holocaust conditions, should spark considerable press attention, which can only benefit the pic’s theatrical prospects.
Jarecki’s interest in the issue is indirectly personal. Inspired by the death of his housekeeper’s son, he traces the cause to drugs, and when he takes a step back to examine what’s being done about the problem in the United States, he finds a scheme designed to get politicians elected, keep minorities off the street and support a massive prison industry. Instead of encouraging treatment or addressing the root causes of drug addiction, the laws are designed to crack down on the end users and petty dealers, resulting in a system with more citizens behind bars per capita than any other country in the world.
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While the statistics are alarming, the film is anything but a dry PowerPoint presentation on the subject. Beginning in a personal place by explaining how his Jewish family immigrated to avoid persecution in Europe, thereby laying the groundwork for the Holocaust argument that resurfaces later, Jarecki cycles through a sprawling cast of characters — from cops to criminals to distinguished Harvard professors — whose insights and articulateness will eventually become clear.
Researched over the course of three years, involving travel to all corners of the country, the project covers an astounding amount of ground within its just-shy-of-two-hours running time. Jarecki recaps the history of America’s antidrug movement twice, first giving the accepted 1971-forward version that began with Nixon, later revising that to suggest a more insidious sociological theory by which laws were passed to target specific racial groups identified with various drugs (Chinese opium dealers, black cocaine users, Mexican marijuana smokers).
According to Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” there are more African-Americans incarcerated today than there were enslaved 10 years before the Civil War. And those that are brought to trial are subjected to harsh mandatory minimums, clogging prisons with nonviolent criminals; until the Obama administration, sentences were 100 times stricter for crack than for cocaine. While the latter is seen as a white person’s party drug, anti-crack rhetoric preys on citizens’ worst fears of minorities and has been disproportionately applied against blacks, who represent only 13% of the country’s crack users, but account for 90% of those arrested for it.
Though the film’s entire ride is eye-opening and angry-making, late in the argument Jarecki returns to his earlier Holocaust comparison. It’s a loaded analogy and one that any rhetorically savvy viewer would be inclined to dismiss. But star interview subjects David Simon (producer of “The Wire”) and historian Richard Lawrence Miller summarize the case for which Jarecki has spent the previous 100 minutes building evidence. In brief, drug laws have been engineered to identify and ostracize certain minority groups, after which authorities use these codes to confiscate the property and deny the rights of targeted individuals, removing them from society and concentrating them behind bars.
In the past, filmmakers from Cheech and Chong (“Up in Smoke”) to Ron Mann (“Grass”) have made punchy films aimed at legalizing drugs. Instead of advocating tolerance for drug use, Jarecki puts faces to those being arrested and voices to the individuals responsible for processing them on a daily basis (including judge Mark Bennett, prison guard Mike Carpenter and officer Fabio Zuena, as seen on “Cops”), and thus conveys just how untenable a 40-year war against America’s own citizens has gotten.