Review: Compelling 'House I Live In' examines America's failing 'war on drugs'

As America remains embroiled in conflict overseas, a less visible war is taking place at home, costing countless lives, destroying families, and inflicting untold damage ...

Rating: No Rating

Length: 108 minutes

Released: October 5, 2012 NY

Cast: Michelle Alexander, Shanequa Benitez, The Honorable Mark Bennett, Charles Bowden, Mike Carpenter

Director: Eugene Jarecki

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"The House I Live In" is an ambitious documentary about the real object of the "war on drugs," and the real results of it. The director of "Why We Fight" offers proof and expert testimony that traces the war to efforts to isolate an activity of America's counterculture, an effort that turned into wars against entire communities.

Eugene Jarecki makes a pretty good case, because the evidence — that cocaine became an American criminal justice obsession at a time of rising black ambitions in the United States, that marijuana only became demonized with the rise of Latin culture in the U.S. — is there. And the payoff has been a never-ending "war" that has gutted communities and turned police into drug-money-seeking bounty hunters, ignoring other crimes and drug use that is, if anything, more widespread.

Jarecki follows cops from Miami to New Mexico and sees how their work has been perverted, their standing in their communities eroded because of the civil liberty violations that have come with the "get tough on drugs" emphasis in law enforcement.

He revisits some Providence, R.I., police, featured on TV's "Cops" decades ago, now jaded at the endless pursuit of "numbers" of arrests and what that emphasis has done to that city and others like it.

What works is the way Jarecki builds the trail of evidence, from Richard Nixon's politically savvy but somewhat idealistic "war" that included generous funding for rehabilitation programs, to Ronald Reagan and other presidents' political posturing over the issue.

Millions go to the growing number of prison cells in America, and Jarecki reinforces those statistics with others — 1.7 million children in the U.S. "now have a parent in prison."

Neighborhoods riven by police sweeps and small-time arrests lose businesses, schools fail, families collapse and a cycle of failure forms. As experts — including David Simon, ex-reporter and creator of TV's "The Wire" — note, poor young people in these communities are "making rational decisions" by getting into drugs, "the only company functioning" in their "company town."

With "minimum sentence" and "three strikes" laws, prison populations swell, with little chance of the inmates having any sort of normal life after they get out. Jarecki follows the case of a 24-year-old who is having the book thrown at him for a relatively minor infraction, tracks down the kids' junkie father, and meets a judge who is speaking out against these politically motivated sentencing guidelines.

Where his film fails is in Jarecki's upper-middle-class attempts to tie himself and his well-off family to the tale. We meet Nannie Jeter, the woman who raised him, and hear Jarecki puzzle over why some of her black working-class family wound up dead or in trouble. And we go "duh" when Nannie Jeter (her real name) tells us, and him, that she was too busy raising the Jarecki kids in a distant city and not raising her own.

Jarecki's film makes some great points, reinforcing what a growing chorus of others are saying about this decades-long "war," that it is time to rethink it, political costs be damned. But he undercuts his arguments by being repetitious, and with that precious tale-of-two-families hook that he hangs this film on.

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