Film Review: The House I Live In

Photo courtesy of Samuel Cullman

Showing through Thursday, October 18th at the Gene Siskel Film Center

The new documentary The House I Live In, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for U.S. documentary, is a damning portrait of the so-called “War on Drugs.” Writer and Director Eugene Jarecki takes viewers into inner-city neighborhoods, poor rural towns, prisons, and courthouses across the United States to hear the stories of families and communities ravaged by drug-related arrests and incarceration.

The House I Live In is not a movie about Mexico: it’s a study of the consequences of American drug policy at home since the late 1960s, in places like New Haven, CT; Miami, FL, Lexington, OK; and Sioux City, IA.

Jarecki pulls together an impressive cast of characters for the film: policy experts, professors, prison wardens, attorneys, police officers, journalists, incarcerated people and their family members, and even his childhood housekeeper. David Simon, the creator of the HBO series The Wire, is particularly compelling in his interviews, declaring at the beginning of the film: “What drugs haven’t destroyed, the war against them has.”

Much of the film focuses on the disproportionate impact of the War on Drugs on African-Americans. Although they comprise only 13% of the U.S. population, according to Jarecki, African Americans make up 56% of people incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Michelle Alexander, a civil rights litigator and author of The New Jim Crow, presents the startling statistic that more African-Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850, before the civil war began. An American historian, Richard Lawrence Miller, posits that the War on Drugs is a form of modern-day racial control; he compares it to the criminalization of opium in late 19th century San Francisco, designed to marginalize Chinese immigrants.

Conspicuously absent from the film are Latinos, despite the fact that Hispanics make up more than 30% of drug offenders in federal prison and 20% of drug offenders in state prison, according to the Sentencing Project. However, Jarecki concludes that in the last decade or so, as meth use exploded in rural, white America and the economy tanked, the War on Drugs has evolved into an attack on poor people of all races.

Perhaps the greatest strength of The House I Live In is its ability to show how people on both sides of the War on Drugs are united in viewing it as a disastrous failure. Prison wardens bemoan the fact that resources are diverted from rehabilitation to enforcement. A U.S. District Court judge is clearly pained as he visits a group of inmates whom he has sentenced. He says that the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that require him to give draconian sentences for drug-related convictions are unjust. Even police offers express frustration over the futility of trying to eradicate drug abuse and drug trafficking.

An informative and engaging documentary, The House I Live In is also a call to action. You will have a hard time forgetting the stories that you hear in the film, and you may even be inspired to do something about it.