Eugene Jarecki’s deconstruction of the War on Drugs in his documentary, The House I Live In, initially pissed off the white, dreadlocked pothead sitting in front of me at the theater. I think he and his friends expected to pump their fists with other persecuted weed smokers (a.k.a. privileged Caucasian stoners who got suspended from school once), so he was less than stoked to be hit with a message of personal responsibility instead.
It wasn’t long, though, before The House I Live In turned his grumbling to rapt attention: the movie was thoroughly compelling. And I DON’T LIKE PRISON GUARDS, ‘ya feel me? Yet I fell in love with the turnkey at the center of this story.
Racial hierarchies and the economics of incarceration are the two strongest arguments for seeing the film – and for recommending it to others. From fantastical sentencing to deplorable healthcare and the prison-for-proft lobby, we can no longer rely on local or state governments to know what to do with us if we break the law. At the same time, we live in an age where our laws are like tuna nets. Decisions about our criminal courts are driven by the needs of our jails, and our jails are being built to accommodate increasing desperation in our economy. Recidivism, it turns out, is highly profitable, and thus essential to the incarceration industry.
Jarecki’s POV in The House I Live In is intelligent and clear-eyed, if not dispassionate. The audience learns right away where the War on Drugs began, and that the filmmaker’s childhood caregiver, an African-American woman who lost her son and others to drug abuse and incarceration, fueled his desire to understand things through a lens other than his own. “Nannie’s” pride and viewpoints on Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the White House were what made Jarecki start asking questions; her answers formed the basis for the tour on which the audience embarks.
It turns out, the price for a more punitive society is more than America can afford. The film points out that poor Blacks have been paying for decades, and other disenfranchised groups are now shouldering an increasing share of that burden as well.
[I heard White Dreadlocks and company chuckle uncomfortably at one point; I think it was when they realized they weren’t actually hearing funny black person sitcom sarcasm.]
The House I Live In is a powerful, enlightening viewing experience that shouldn’t be dismissed as a biased bitch-fest. The cost to America of having 1 adult in every 31 under some form of correctional supervision is a fiscal three-alarm fire that no one should ignore. I found the film personally humbling as well: I’m ashamed at how little I’ve done with my life despite so many advantages and so few genuine obstacles (those familiar with this blog know the obstacles I’ve overcome have definitely been optional). But that’s me. Everyone in this country has a duty to understand the drastic nature of the changes taking place in society.
And no, those changes aren’t all bad, not even in the narrowed context of Jarecki’s film. And for what it’s worth, The House I Live In ends on a positive note, though the three older ladies who bailed early missed that. Perhaps they held the same perspective as the one being questioned regarding the judicial obstacles faced by certain cultures and races. One of ‘em did pause at the door, but she was practically pulled out by her companions a minute later.
What one thinks about Jarecki’s journey or his film is beside the point, really: what matters is that you get into a dialogue with a young person about not getting arrested for anything, no matter what, ever. From there, if you wish, maybe you work your way into the judicial and circumstantial realities of cultures other than your own. It’s a start.
I think The House I Live In is a brilliant way to break the ice. Although the film’s most dire warnings are almost a byproduct, (message of personal responsibility) they’re glaringly obvious nonetheless. Luckily for parents, the documentary rejects the tired “Scared Straight” approach by conducting interviews during drug deal ride-alongs, for example, instead of after the fact and behind bars. This takes viewers in directions they may not see coming and holds their attention like handcuffs. There’s a clear message, too: for a hell of a lot of people, being out on the street justifying a hustle isn’t much better than being an inmate. We’re shown – not just told – that the life of a dealer isn’t glamorous; it’s just slightly more fluid. That, in turn, can mean more liquid grief in which to marinate and little else.
[Last I saw White Dreadlocks, he was in heavy discussion with his friends. They were a changed group from the carefree jokers I first sat behind: now they were better armed and better informed.]
But don’t go see The House I Live In for the moralities or the lessons: go for that prison guard. His ability to sum up America’s failed drug policies in less than 60 seconds shows astonishing insight for an admitted “hired thug.” It alone is worth the film’s running time.