Friday, January 18, 2013

Film Review: The House I Live In

Eugene Jarecki's new film The House I live in, which is currently available for purchase streaming from Amazon and iTunes, opens with a press conference featuring Richard Nixon. Flanked by his assistants, Nixon declares war on the "Number One enemy of the American people": Drugs.

The remainder of the movie is a sober examination of the colossal failure of the war on drugs. It documents this war through the personal histories of addicts, sellers, police officers, activists, prison guards, and others whose lives are woven into the tapestry of overenforcement and mass incarceration.

Much to my relief, the movie does not minimize the immense harm that drugs bring upon users, their families, and their communities. It acknowledges the devastation of addiction, as well as the fact that many (albeit not all) drug dealers sell to finance their own habits. It also is sensitive to the sociological nuances of drug use. The movie treats the crack epidemic of the 1980s, as well as the subsequent onslaught of meth on the American heartland, with care, acknowledging the seriousness of the problem but avoiding moralistic panic. And yet, as David Simon says on the film, to acknowledge the devastation of drugs is not to automatically condone what has been done to combat that devastation. The immense expense and effort, and the dehumanizing effects of the war on drugs itself, have not led to a decrease in drug abuse, and can be deemed a failure.

One of the movie's great strengths is the finesse with which it treats the relationship between the drug war and racial strife. Particularly attuned to the plight of inner-city African American communities, the movie tells the history of drug criminalization as one of racially-motivated policies. While the movie focuses on the black community as a target (and Michelle Alexander, also interviewed, discusses this aspect of the war, as well as David Kennedy from Harvard,) the movie also includes fascinating footage of the opium wars and of enforcement along the Mexican border. And yet, as it moves to tell the story of poor white meth users, the movie also says that the story of the failed drug war transcends race.

Through David Simon's interview, and fascinating filming of stop-and-frisk scenes, the movie ties up the connection between mass incarceration and street policing. The pay structure for cops is problematized; while brainwork and legwork involved in solving a murder or apprehending a rapist produces, perhaps, one arrest, routine stop-and-frisk activities and warehousing nonviolent drug dealers results in more arrests and in better pay. Another economic angle is the correctional industry; footage from a correctional conference in Tampa shows jocular prison officials trying out tasers and other equipment fueled by an industry of incarceration.

For me, the most controversial aspect of the movie was Jarecki's linking of the war on drugs to the heritage of holocaust survivorship of his parents. He interviews experts on fascism and genocide, showing how laws that support a demonization and dehumanization of an underclass may lead to annihilation. I think the war on drugs is devastating, speak out frequently against prison condition, and am fully aware of what what the prison industrialized complex means for poor people of color, but I found the analogy difficult to digest; I am not sure it was germane to the goal of the movie. What I did find moving and convincing was Jarecki's commitment to help others, and to seeing and highlighting the class aspect of the drug war, as part of the heritage of holocaust-survivor parents who vowed to help others who are less fortunate. 

Another personal angle is Jarecki's ongoing conversation with Nannie Jeter, who escaped the traumas of Jim Crow south to work for his family. In doing so, and wanting to better her circumstances, she encountered more problems and discrimination, and eventually lost a son to the war on drugs. The dialogue between them is moving and convincing, and opens a window to Jarecki's personal motivation and sense of guilt and commitment in making the movie.

Those of us who have been following mass incarceration for a while will not find much new or shocking information in the movie, but it is a great introduction to mass incarceration in the United States for the many people whose taxes pay for this failed war and who might be unaware of its destructive implications.

No comments: