Eugene Jarecki is once again a man on a mission. The director behind a cynical investigation into the American war industry (Why We Fight, 05) and two biographies of divisive American political figures (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, 02, and Reagan, 11) turns to race, poverty, and drug laws in his latest documentary. The House I Live In depicts a situation in which, to quote one talking head, “everybody involved hates what’s going on.”
In a typically ambitious project, Jarecki sets out to cover a huge amount of political, historical, and even personal ground. The film begins with an intimate glimpse into the story of Jarecki’s own childhood nanny, who lost her son to drugs, and from there goes on to show a range of interviewees including current and former drug addicts and dealers, police officers, prison guards, professors, and former police reporter and creator of The Wire David Simon. Reluctant cops express their disillusionment over increased tensions with the community, and judges bristle with bitterness about the injustices of minimum sentencing. The dealers meanwhile are not easy-to-dismiss villains but depressingly ordinary people who peddle to support families in places so poor and without prospect that they make the old mantra of “Just Say No” sound laughably naïve. All confirm Jarecki’s thesis that the War on Drugs is a vicious cycle that hurts more than it helps.
From the opening credits, which play sound bites of Obama waxing lyrical about “liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope” over footage of convicts with their legs in chains, it’s clear that Jarecki, for better and worse, is back to doing what he does best: attacking the beliefs underpinning American complacency and self-righteousness. In this case, he aims to show how the War on Drugs is far more about race and poverty than it is about narcotics, and to challenge the typical demonizing rhetoric of politicians who vow to be “tough on crime.”
Jarecki has a propensity for preachiness, and that, along with a slightly overambitious and disorganized approach, was the biggest shortcoming of Why We Fight. These problems persist in his latest project (which, like Why We Fight, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance), but they are less grating in the context of an impassioned social commentary. By the end of the film, however, Jarecki gets carried away with the importance of his message. His insistence on analyzing the drug war as a symptom of a global human condition—a lecture-plus-montage explicates the incarceration of drug dealers as a social need to fight a constructed enemy “Other”—finally crosses the line from rightfully concerned into righteous and annoying. The climactic sequence that portrays the War on Drugs as a class-based version of the Holocaust is clearly intended as a provocation. Yet the visual juxtaposition of urban ghettos with World War II concentration camps, along with dark prophecies about the inevitable “next step” (i.e., killing the poor), come across as an unnecessary and rather tasteless way of hammering home his otherwise skillfully made arguments.
Jarecki’s tendency to sermonize is especially disappointing because what really gives the film its power, apart from its disturbing statistics, are the moments of basic empathy: relatives of minimum-sentencing convicts bearing baby photographs, weary cops cracking half-hearted jokes at crime scenes, and, in one especially poignant interview, a former drug dealer whose son is now in jail. The man breaks down in tears as he relates his feelings of helplessness: “I got these two little boys, pretty boys, and I don’t know how to really be they dad.” The documentary’s attempts at arousing sentiment can at times feel belabored, but Jarecki’s concern and outrage on behalf of the oppressed is still catching. Despite its flaws, The House I Live In remains a humane examination of a large-scale problem and more successful than Why We Fight at accomplishing the social-issues documentarian’s eternal mission to Make Us Care.