Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Film Review: The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki) 2012

The House I Live In
Every now and again a documentary is released that, when summed up in a sentence, don’t seem to offer anything new.  Supersize Me claimed that McDonalds was bad for you; Sicko claims that Americans lose out because of their corrupt healthcare system; Religulous explores the contradictions between religions.  All admirable subjects, but they’re hardly eye-opening.  The new film from Eugene Jarecki can be summed up in a single sentence too:  The war on drugs is harming Americans instead of protecting them.  The shocking thing from watching the film is how many Americans don’t already know this…

The film follows Jarecki as he travels around the country as an omniscient voiceover exploring the history of drug prohibition, the vilification of drug abusers and the criminal justice system that incarcerates them.  The thesis of the film suffers from considerable mission creep as the initial question that is posed is ‘how many people are involved in the drug war?’ yet it slowly evolves into ‘why and how are African-Americans disproportionately involved in the process?’

There are ‘shocking’ moments where law officials admit that they use racial profiling; officers getting paid for making drug arrests; rape arrests are half the level they use to be and; police agencies use seizure money to fund themselves… the list goes on.  This is vital reporting, but is surely somewhat common knowledge.  The scarier section of the film is the chronology of drug criminalization over the century.  From the banning of opium to arrest chinese workers in California, to the ‘negro’ population using cocaine, to the Mexicans smoking marijuana… This version of events is horrific and as I was watching it I was hoping it was biased and wasn’t as meditated as this program of racist victimisation.  The most disgusting statistic that seems to prove the racist overtones to the law is the 100:1 cocaine to crack powder sentencing imbalance: the smallest amount of crack powder is judged as harshly as cocaine powder and the sentencing is overwhelmingly biased against African-American users.

The narrative differs from most ‘issue’ documentaries by choosing to interview countless numbers of ex-cons, narcotics agents, politicians, families and children etc. instead or following a small group of people trying to overcome something in their lives.  The only memorable recurring character is Jarecki’s nanny and how drugs had affected her family.  By overwhelming the audience with so many voices and stock footage, it paints a horrifying picture of the scope of this problem.  It quotes statistics like “2.7 million children have a parent behind bars” and has an army of politicians from both parties saying the same rhetoric (John McCain, Rudolph Guilliani, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Jo Biden, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Hilary Clinton).  It is curious that Obama is notable by his absence…

The film begins with a journey ‘questioning one persons life’ (Jarecki’s nanny) and ends up with the realisation that America is “killing the poor”.  Disturbing and powerful stuff…

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