The House I Live In: Sundance Film Review

The House I Live In

U.S. Documentary Competition

Powerful doc argues that the War on Drugs needs a dramatic rethinking.

Directed and written by Eugene Jarecki, the documentary argues that America's War on Drugs needs a drastic rethinking.

PARK CITY — A potent cry for a drastic rethinking of America's War on Drugs, Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In synthesizes many fairly familiar arguments, and some that are less so, into a case for viewing U.S. policies as a war on the lower class. Balancing big-picture stats with personal perspectives, it should connect solidly with viewers at a moment when it seems possible to change public attitudes.

Beginning with a personal connection, Jarecki introduces Nannie Jeter, a black woman raised in the South who worked for the Jareckis through his childhood. Observing Jeter's family's difficulties over the years, Jarecki says he grew more and more interested in the ways drugs affect families; upon investigation, he became convinced that our laws greatly exacerbate the damage done by drug abuse, instead of helping.

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Working methodically, Jarecki's nearly two-hour film views the war from a number of perspectives too great to summarize here. Crucially, while he speaks to academics who have long argued for drug-law reform, he also goes to those most directly involved in enforcing the laws: a U.S. District Court judge in Iowa, an Oklahoma corrections officer who's an avowed law-and-order man; numerous narcotics officers. They tell him variations of the same thing: Our laws aren't working to decrease drug use; we're putting too many people away for too long and doing too much harm to their families.

Jarecki might have considered giving a co-writing credit to The Wire's David Simon, because while other interviewees offer damning stats and compelling perspectives, Simon returns throughout the film to crystallize big issues. Describing an under-discussed side effect of the drug war, in which overtime pay goes to cops who make easy possession arrests while those spending their time on hard-to-solve violent crimes go unrewarded, he says our policy "makes a police department where nobody can solve a fucking crime."

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Many of these statistics have popped up here and there in public discourse, and are simply being gathered into a digestible, infuriating package. But House holds eye-opening surprises as well, like an interview with Abraham Lincoln scholar Richard Lawrence Miller: Looking through the history of American drug laws, Miller argues that legal substances were frequently demonized only when it became clear that making them illegal could help keep a threatening minority in check. (For example, Miller cites opium laws on the West Coast directed at Chinese immigrants.)

Squeezing in interviews with people personally affected by drug laws, many of whom are unable to find legal work, Jarecki finds a system designed to perpetuate itself -- and to enrich a growing prison industry. Or asSimon puts it: "All these Americans we don't need anymore -- let's see if we can make money off locking them up." Returning throughout the film to Nanny Jeter's living room as she watches Barack Obama winning the 2008 election, Jarecki tacitly suggests Obama could be the one to break with the tradition of presidents, from Nixon to Clinton, who have courted voters by making too-simple, inadvertently destructive promises to "get tough" on drugs.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production Company: Charlotte Street Films
Director-screenwriter: Eugene Jarecki
Producers: Eugene Jarecki, Melinda Shopsin, Samuel Cullman, Christopher St. John
Executive producers: Nick Fraser, Joslyn Barnes, Danny Glover, Roy Ackerman, David Alcaro
Directors of photography: Sam Cullman, Derek Hallquist
Music: Robert Miller
Editor: Paul Frost
Sales: Cinetic
No rating, 117 minutes