Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
October 12, 2012
*** (out of four)
Citizens, politicians: Lend Eugene Jarecki your ears. In his exceptional 2005 documentary “Why We Fight,” Jarecki explored dubious political agendas and financial interests that drive the military-industrial complex. In “The House I Live In,” he’s still questioning why we fight and finding similar answers.
This time, however, Jarecki looks not at war in Iraq but a war on American streets. Anyone with even a vague sense of current events recognizes the number of arrests for drug-related crimes—45 million since 1971, the movie indicates. Recent discussions, particularly in Chicago, have focused on how softening certain drug laws may better target police efforts to curb violence in the city.
“The House I Live In” spends considerable time with David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who created the HBO drama “The Wire.” He says that the financial incentives granted to officers who deliver high numbers of drug-related arrests foster a law-enforcement culture of cops unable to actually investigate and prevent crimes. Later, he anchors Jarecki’s boldest assertion in this troubling documentary, saying that the war on drugs has become a “Holocaust in slow motion” that destroys communities based on class rather than race or religion. The war on drugs, he says, essentially veers toward policy that can be summed up as “kill the poor.”
That assessment, which touches on the history of a war that targets drugs commonly associated with minority groups, rings louder than other well-researched but familiar issues brought up by the film. Those include, most prominently, the disproportionate number of African-Americans arrested for drug-related crimes (particularly crack, long prosecuted more harshly than the more white-collar used powder cocaine).
Jarecki’s study would be more comprehensive had it assessed the presence of drugs in schools in a variety of neighborhoods. He also hesitates to offer suggested solutions to a system fiercely resistant to change—a result of generally unflinching politicians and monetary incentives to maintain a prison system populated with many people serving large, minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes.
Whatever your position on the drug war, it’s hard to deny the frustration of judges and correctional officers who have seen people locked away for decades while drug usage remains constant. We also can’t ignore the heartbreak of a Harvard professor who notes that he can predict with near certainty where healthy newborns will wind up based on a few basic tenets of their backgrounds.
“The House I Live In” convincingly and compassionately argues we should consider those circumstances, not just show up a few decades later with a gavel to clean up messes that years of exclusionary policy have helped create.
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