In her invaluable 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander posits the decades-long U.S. government policy known as the “war on drugs” as a system of racial control, a true successor to the series of laws that kept black Americans in the South in a state of legalized segregation following Reconstruction. Although Alexander is among the talking heads assembled by Eugene Jarecki for his own docu-indictment of the government’s drug policy, her assessment of the war on drugs as specifically race-based is refuted by many of the other subjects in The House I Live In who claim that the U.S.‘s narcotics laws are based on controlling lower class people of all colors, and that poor white meth addicts are increasingly vying with their non-white counterparts for space in U.S. jails.
Whether or not you view the mass jailing of nonviolent drug offenders as specifically racially inflected (and the film cites plenty of data that suggests it certainly has been, such as the fact that while African Americans are responsible for roughly 13 percent of crack use, they constitute 90 percent of the crack-related prison population), Jarecki’s doc stands as a powerful indictment of a program that’s decimated communities, cost taxpayers roughly a trillion dollars, and hasn’t reduced the amount of drugs being consumed in this country one iota. The director’s methods are pretty ordinary (expert talking heads, historical background, case studies of people going through the legal system, a bit of a first-person angle), but the mixture of different techniques and varied views results in a rich, multi-faceted look at one of America’s most misguided policy initiatives, outlining the ways in which what was once viewed as a matter of public health became an excuse to lock up threatening “undesirables.”
From frequent explicator David Simon’s controlled lividness to the tearful tale of Jarecki’s family’s housekeeper, Nannie Jeter, whose decision to move with her employers from her native New Haven to upstate New York left her son vulnerable to the deadly pressures of drug abuse, first-person testimony provides the anguished heart of the project, but it’s the film’s historical perspective that proves most valuable. Historian Richard Lawrence Miller usefully explains how drugs such as opium, cocaine, and marijuana were once legal and used openly by upper-class white citizens, but when they became associated with, respectively, Chinese immigrants, African Americans, and Mexicans, they were soon outlawed and used as means of keeping these hated populations in check. As the film argues, this project continued through the ‘80s, when Reagan’s draconian drug policy began to target black men, many of whom, left destitute by the decreasing availability of manufacturing jobs and governmental neglect of their failing neighborhoods, turned to the only viable economic option available, dealing drugs, and into the present, when desperate poor whites operating meth labs are beginning to round out prison populations.
Although one can bemoan the relative short shrift given to Alexander, whose book remains the definitive study of the toxic effects of the war on drugs, there’s no denying the ways in which Jarecki’s film effectively weds rhetorical outrage to well-researched fact. While the documentarian’s methods aren’t always the most imaginative (he indulges in that old, condescending ask-the-man-on-the-street-and-reveal-his-ignorance gambit), he’s assembled a damning collection of evidence that can’t be ignored. It’s always difficult to assess what social role activist documentaries play among the cacophony of competing media voices, but Jarecki’s movie serves not only as a valuable civics lesson that may or may not steer public debate in new directions, but as a powerful piece of anguished filmmaking in its own right.