Eugene Jarecki’s documentary, The House I Live In shows the damage done by prohibition to inner-city communities.
Over the past four decades, America’s War on Drugs has made the US the world’s biggest jailer. But why, after 45million arrests, are drugs still rife? And why, then, have the US government continued to fight this pointless battle? These are the questions Eugene Jarecki explores in his new advocacy-doc, The House I Live In.
Jarecki’s past topics have ranged from the alleged war crimes of a former US secretary of state (The Trial of Henry Kissinger) to the perks of small-town bank membership (Move Your Money). Yet, as is evident from his gushing opening narration, The House I Live In is a far more personal project.
Having grown up in the suburban, middle-income bubble, Jarecki was shocked to find out that the family of his black childhood nanny hadn’t enjoyed the same stability and privilege as he had. Where he had gone on to academia, book deals and later success as a documentary filmmaker, Nannie Jetter’s family was torn apart by drugs – leaving one of her sons dead from an overdose and another in prison for drug dealing.
Setting out in search of answers, armed with a camera and a profound sense of middle-class guilt, he began to find that, as one talking head puts it, ‘what drugs haven’t destroyed, the war on drugs has’. Over the course of the documentary, Jarecki teases out the vested interests and political mechanisms that have laid waste to entire impoverished communities in the name of a drug-free America.
A host of prominent social historians explain the drug war’s beginnings in the Nixon era, when Tricky Dick ignored the strides rehab clinics were making in reducing drug dependency in favour of a vote-scoring police crackdown. This proved a winning formula and, over time, a tough-on-drugs stance became the default position for officials on both sides of the political spectrum hungry for election success.
Today, with each successive police commissioner, mayor, senator and president pursuing high drug-arrest figures, officers are encouraged to hound poor areas in search of easy busts. This political drive, combined with monstrously disproportionate laws – which impose as much as four times the sentence for those who deal the types of drugs most popular in the inner city – and a prison system that profits from the influx, has created a mechanism which does little more than demonise and imprison the poor for what are often non-violent offences. As one perceptive Brooklyn drug dealer, Shaniqua Benitez, points out, illegal drugs are present in all levels of American society, yet it is only the poor who are locked up for it.
What makes this all the more heinous is the fact that these draconian policies aren’t even having any impact on drug crime and usage in the communities they single out. In fact, as Jarecki explains, it has only perpetuated a self-destructive cycle for the people already involved in drug dealing. Those with a drug charge on their record are rendered more or less unemployable and ineligible for social housing to boot, meaning a return to old ways is often the only means of survival.
While his nasally voice over may put one in mind of another (similarly rotund) doc-maker, Michael Moore, Jarecki raises our ire without succumbing to cheap pot-shots and leftier-than-thou posturing. Rather than seeking to draw devil horns on the heads of individuals – as Fahrenheit 9/11 did with then-President George W Bush – The House I Live In exposes the War on Drugs as the product of interconnected issues while making a compelling case for its immediate end.
However, his focus on one particular issue, race, almost manages to unravel his entire argument. Towards the end of the documentary, Jarecki speaks with a wild-eyed historian who suggests that the targeting of ethnic minorities in the drug war is the first stage in a process that ultimately leads in genocide. While - as we see when Jarecki goes for a ride-along with a Mid-West drug squad - racial profiling has almost become standard practice in the War on Drugs, institutionalised racism is, for the most part, an effect rather than a cause.
Clearly fuelled by his affection for Nannie Jetter, Jarecki’s fixation on race only leads him to give credence to a fruitless and, if anything, over-simplified interpretation of the drug war and its motivations. This is a great shame, for Jarecki’s late-stage shift into conspiracy theorising taints this otherwise important treatise on the impracticality and immorality of forcefully prohibitive drug policy.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.