Since the 1970s, the United States government has spent a trillion dollars — and incarcerated tens of millions of its own citizens — in the ongoing war on drugs. In spite of this, statistics on narcotics related crime remain almost completely unchanged. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In is a fantastically constructed, unrelentingly compelling look at one of the biggest ongoing injustices in American society today.
One of the film’s major selling points — for me, at least — is the involvement of David Simon, best known for creating HBOs landmark cop drama The Wire. If nothing else, The House I Live In confirms the grim situation depicted in Simon’s series; a world of disillusioned law enforcement officers fighting a war they cannot win, against individuals born into impoverished circumstances from which they cannot escape. For them, a life of crime is the only sensible economic option, the risk of imprisonment a necessary one. Besides, even if they are imprisoned, it scarcely does anything to disrupt a vicious status quo. Simon, who before his career in television worked for more than a decade as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, makes for an articulate and convincing interview subject, outlining the mind-boggling statistics and disturbing legal hypocrisies with authority and cynical humour.
But Simon is just one of many voices. With a masterful sense of pace and eye for intelligent juxtaposition, Jarecki cycles through historians, professors, journalists, judges, police officers, prison officials, convicts, addicts and dealers, as well as their family members, whose lives have been torn into pieces. Through their testimonies, he drudges the history of narcotics law in the United States, from its implicit connections to racial control, the outrageous and illogical sentencing laws (introduced by politicians of both party persuasions in an attempt to look “tough on crime”), the toll the war has taken on law enforcement officials and low socio-economic communities alike, and how it all contributes to a self-perpetuating cycle in which nothing is actually improved. The sheer amount of information, both anecdotal and empirical, that Jarecki fits into this film, is staggering. Nonetheless, the message is crystal clear: the war on drugs has been a catastrophe – and a very expensive catastrophe at that.
Undoubtedly, The House I Live In has an agenda –that I support such an agenda wholeheartedly does not make me blind to this fact. Perhaps Jarecki’s biggest mistake is that he never interviews a proponent of the drug war, relying instead on old television footage of vote-grubbing politicians to raise the ire of an indignant left-leaning audience. Meanwhile, his Michael Moore-ish narration, feigning surprise at each new piece of information uncovered, seems at times a little condescending, while his attempts to bring a personal dimension to the story via discussions with his families old housekeeper, an elderly African-American woman whose own son fell victim to the perils of addiction, seems out of place and rather self-indulgent.
Still, this criticism can be confined to only a small portion of the film, which for the most part concerns itself with hard facts and voices from the front line. There’s no denying that there’s something seriously wrong with the way America deals with narcotics offenders; if you didn’t believe it before the film began, you’ll certainly believe it when it ends.
The House I Live In was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival. For more MIFF reviews, click here.