The drug war gets a thorough going-over in Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, a documentary that considers the issue both from a historical perspective and in the now, via vignettes shot around the country with dealers, convicts, cops, jailers, and grieving mothers. Jarecki mainly wonders what happened to the more humanist version of “the war on drugs” that began in the Nixon administration, when care and rehabilitation for addicts was as much a part of public policy as putting pushers behind bars and throwing away the key. The result is a movie that jumps all over the place, but with the ultimate intention of showing how the public’s attitudes and assumptions about drugs have changed over the past half-century, guided by politicians and businessmen with a stake in misinformation.
The House I Live In’s grab-bag approach is too diffuse at times, and Jarecki’s first-person narration—prompted by his experiences with an elderly African-American who once worked for Jarecki’s family while her own child was being destroyed by drugs—provides a personal spin that to a degree takes away from the doc’s objective “these are the facts” mode. It also doesn’t help that Jarecki relies almost exclusively on old political speeches for the pro-drug-war point of view, as opposed to new interviews. Some of his interview subjects are hardcore law-and-order types, but even they say that the current drug policy is a failure, criminalizing the poor and sick. Perhaps Jarecki couldn’t find any persuasive advocates for the opposing point of view, but the absence of balance does make The House I Live In seem at times more like it’s scoring points than making them.
Still, for the most part, Jarecki connects his surfeit of anecdotal observations to hard data, making a compelling case that the drug war has never been about drugs, but about controlling the underclass. And even viewers of a less-conspiratorial bent should be horrified by how Jarecki shows that the drug war has become a self-sustaining business, where the government seizes money from dealers and uses it to buy more prison beds, necessitating more arrests. Much of the information in the movie will be familiar to anyone with any passing knowledge of the subject—or anyone who’s watched The Wire, whose creator, David Simon, is interviewed here—but Jarecki’s comprehensiveness and passion sell this story, scoop or no