“The War on Drugs has never been about drugs.” Whoa. That’s not exactly a statement you hear in everyday life. Let alone used to advertise a movie, but that’s the tagline for the Grand Jury Prize winning documentary, The House I Live In. “The war on drugs is a holocaust in slow motion.” This is what David Simon says about the war on drugs in the trailer, and towards the end of the film. This is a huge, potentially controversial statement said to really make people sit up (and it’s a great moment in the film). “Finally,” I thought, “Someone is going to critique of the racist ‘drug war’ that been that’s been ruining people’s lives for the last 40 years!” Unfortunately The House I Live In tackles the issue from an incredibly privileged, white perspective.
Eugene Jarecki begins a documentary about the systematic imprisonment of people of color by describing how his white family came to America and learned everyone should be equal. Before he even address the drug war he makes the film about himself, and he had no idea this was going on. He realized the drug war was bad because the black woman who took care of him as a child lost her own son to the war. Jarecki goes on to too assure us she wasn’t a nanny because she was part of the family, even though every old picture or home video involved her wearing an apron, making dinner, cleaning the house, and his family made her leave her own family to take of theirs when they moved. This woman was his nanny. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it immediately reveals a lack of understanding. Jarecki’s heart is in the right place, but he doesn’t understand his own privilege and it affects the whole documentary.
Jarecki consistently and needlessly places himself in the film, and reminds us how shocked he was when he discovered a new detail. He makes his points at an incredibly slow pace. I don’t know if he doesn’t trust the audience to make connections on their own but he doesn’t even really begin talking about race in a serious manner for a good hour or so. What!? It was so frustrating to sit back and watch him tell the story of the drug war from his point of view. His decision to tell the story from his perspective distracts from the people who are actually affected, and strips their stories of any real emotion. I felt angry from time to to time, but a documentary about the the war on drugs should have filled me with rage and leave me emotionally devastated.
Ok, lets take a breath. As critical as I’ve been so far, The House I Live In actually does rise above it’s white privileged and is an incredibly important film I suggest everyone sees. This is because Jarecki interviews people who know what they’re talking about. Who gives us fact after fact. A woman states, “More people of color are in prison right now, than there were slaves in the 1800s.” Another man reveals crack and cocaine have a 100 to 1 sentencing ratio. Which means to get the same sentences for 1 gram of crack you need 100 grams of cocaine. Cocaine is a drug of the white upper class and crack is a drug of the lower class. Gee, I wonder why crack has an insanely harsher sentence? How can you learn facts like that and not realize these laws are design to affected certain people? Do you know what the difference is between cocaine and crack? Crack adds baking soda and water to cocaine. That’s it.
There’s even an incredible sequence towards the end of the film that compares what’s happening in the United States to other genocides around the world. We’ve discovered a way to ruin people’s lives by telling everyone else we’re keeping them safe. The film is full of great interviews and facts. Unfortunately Jarecki makes decisions that include telling white people it’s time to care because now even white people are going to jail for their entire lives because of meth. It feels like a film made for other upper middle class white people who are going to be so shocked something like this could happen in the United States. That is important. The film is revealing things to people who had no idea. The House I Live In should be seen by everyone. I just wish it was made by someone else.
Final Grade: B+