In political documentaries, there is a spectrum of personalization. On one extreme, there is Michael Moore. He sometimes inserts himself into his films so he can provide narration and rely on anecdotal evidence. Charles Ferguson, director of Inside Job , is the other extreme. He relies on experts and facts, pointing to the precise causes of a large problem. The House I Live In, the new documentary about the War on Drugs, combines both extremes. Eugene Jarecki uses personal anecdotes and large-scale analysis to uncover the institutional racism behind America’s biggest law enforcement catastrophe.
The entry point is Nannie Jeter, a black woman who worked in Jarecki’s New Haven home. After Jarecki’s parents relocated him and his brothers to New York, Jeter lost two of her children to drugs. With patient narration, Jarecki says he wants to understand why this tragedy struck Jeter’s family. His method is interview experts and players in the War on Drugs. He talks to prison guards, inmates, and a federal judge. He goes on a ride-along with law enforcement and working-class drug dealers. All these people are smart, patient, and utterly frustrated by the drug war.
Thanks to The Wire, I was arrogant enough to think I knew all there was to know about the War on Drugs. While Jarecki hits on some familiar points – the racism of mandatory minimum sentencing among them – he goes deeper than David Simon’s HBO series (Simon, of course, is the most forceful talking head). There is a key interview with a historian who calmly explains that every drug ban has its root in thinly-veiled racism. America banned opium because Chinese immigrants were the first opium users, it banned marijuana because Hispanics were the first marijuana users, and so on. The simplicity of the historian’s language is jarring. By weaving startling drug war imagery throughout his film, Jarecki shows the pervasiveness of this problem, and how there may be no solution.
The War on Drugs began with Richard Nixon, and strangely enough, his policies worked because they focused more on prevention than law enforcement. He abandoned that approach, naturally, for political gain. At one point, someone shrewdly remarks, “No politician ever lost an election by going soft on crime.” Jarecki and others argue that “crime is a problem” political discourse leads down wrong-minded, expensive path. The way he conflates all this frustration and wasteful spending is fascinating. We see how the prison guard, the judge, and the dealers all suffer because our way of talking about drugs is totally fucked.
Given the preceding paragraphs, you can probably guess I prefer Ferguson’s films over Moore’s. Jarecki’s policy discussions are what I find most persuasive, but the personal stories behind should not be disregarded, either. Jeter speaks with dignity and resignation, as if she can never comprehend the complex engine that led to the death of herchildren. Jarecki compellingly provides the context, and by always sounding patient, he lets bitter sadness wash over his audience, which then leads to anger. Few movies are ever this searing.