The House I Live In

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  The House I Live In
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Since Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971 over $1 trillion have been spent and over 45 million arrests were made in the losing battle to stop drugs in America. Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki explores the history of this war, the longest in US history, and how it is destroying the lives of those arrested for their non-violent crimes and their families, too, in “The House I Live In.” 

Statistics abound in this thorough analysis of the declared war that, like Vietnam, we are losing. Jarecki takes us back to the roots that grew long before Nixon’s declaration of war and how drug laws were enacted to target a particular race. Opium laws, for example, were enacted to imprison the Chinese immigrants that flocked to America to take white men’s jobs on the railroad in the late 1800s. Cocaine laws, particularly those pertaining to crack, are aimed at the black communities with penalties 150 times greater than for cocaine use in the white neighborhoods. The result is a prison population that is growing and consists of mostly non-violent criminals. The US makes up 5% of the world population but has 25% of the world incarcerated. These are just the tip of the iceberg of the myriad collection of clearly told facts and stats That Jarecki has collected and collated.

It was said, about our involvement in Vietnam, that we won the battles but lost the war. Nixon’s war on drugs (and for all the presidents who followed) has never even won a battle and, 40 years into it this miscarriage of justice, has done nothing to curb the import and use of drugs in the US. What it has accomplished, though, is the private prison system (incarceration for cash) that is extremely lucrative and is now the mainstay of income in the small towns across the country where these prisons flourish, providing many well-paying jobs. Now, the idea of stopping the mass arrests and convictions for such crimes as simple possession would mean closing the prisons for profit and losing all the jobs they provide. But, which is more important: killing the golden goose of employment or making right a 40 year wrong? Jarecki lets you decide but you know exactly what he thinks. The shear economics of the drug war will garner interest for this well-crafted, eye-opening documentary from both liberals and conservatives alike. I give it an A-.

writer/director Eugene Jarecki ("Why We Fight") is the son of parents who fled Nazi Germany and his family believes the U.S. should be a safe haven for all.  But Eugene has a second family, that of his family's black housekeeper, whose children and grandchildren played with the Jarecki boys.  After having lost touch with many of them, he was surprised to learn how many have struggled as adults.  When he asked Nannie what happened she had a one word answer - drugs.  Jarecki began to look further into the issue and discovered the issue was far more complex than most knew in "The House I Live In."

Eugene Jarecki exposes the 'War on Drugs' as a systematic failure in the same intelligent, compelling way he took on the military industrial complex in "Why We Fight," but his latest film is both more personal and more devastating.  This is a documentary one hopes is shown in the White House, the Senate and Congress.  In fact, every thinking American should take the time to watch this documentary.

Like "Why We Fight," much of the information Jarecki includes may be known to many, but he has such a steady, even-handed build in making his argument you will be horrified all over again.  It's not just the statistics, and here are many and they are shocking, but the underlying historical and social implications that are effectively disturbing.  You will hear a Lincoln historian, Richard Lawrence Miller, compare the War on Drugs to the Holocaust and be convinced.  Then Jarecki finds a Lexington, Oklahoma corrections officer who finds his way to many of this man's same conclusions.

The numbers are impressive.  Since 1971, when Richard Nixon first made drugs a priority, this country has spent $1 trillion and arrested 45 million.  But drug use is just as prevalent.  Nixon himself knew that the money spent on rehabilitation was far more effective than that spent on law enforcement, but the opposite proved true with the political soundbite and drug laws grew increasingly more prohibitive.

Jarecki lays out how we have systematically used drug laws to keep minority immigrants down, beginning with opium and Chinese railroad workers.  He also uses his vast array of experts to show how not only are our prison systems disproportionately full of black men, but how we now jail more people for nonviolent crimes. The fallout is incredible.  Black families suffer, these men and their kids finding no way out, the very definition of a vicious cycle.  Law enforcers are frustrated, but picking up pot smokers in poor neighborhoods garners more arrests than a murder investigation.  Corrections facilities have seen how educational programs offer the incarcerated a new lease on life, giving them the ability to reenter society as plumbers and electricians, yet these are the first type of programs to be cut.  Implicit, but not stated - that instead of having these men become tax payers, we bear the cost of cycling them back into the prison systems, a far greater economic impact than any cost cutting measures.

Jarecki goes for the big picture and paints it very clearly, but he also continues to return to the personal. Individual stories, like the plight of the very charismatic Anthony Johnson, are sad and frustrating.  And there's Nennie herself, telling Eugene that although she tried to do everything right for her family - moving north, following the Jareckis to New York for a doubled salary - that ultimately it proved their downfall. "The House I Live In" is a powerful demand for political reform.

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