Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival, The House I Live In has a simple message that no one can successfully deny: whatever damage illicit drugs have done to individuals, communities and American society at large in recent decades, the politically fueled and now 40-year-old "War on Drugs" has only made the damage far worse.
Writer/director Eugene Jarecki takes almost two hours to trace the history of drug laws in America while painting a personal portrait of families torn apart across generations by a vicious cycle of incarceration, economic hardship and despair. The whole thing may resonate more on one side of the political spectrum, but the film provides ample evidence that this particular issue has never been about red and blue. President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs in 1971 to lift his sagging pre-election poll numbers even though drug-related crimes were actually on the decline. Vintage clips reveal that Bill Clinton and even a young Joe Biden chose the same path to easy political gain when they felt they needed it.
The House I Live In blends archival footage and new interviews with everyone from drug dealers to academic experts, and it does an excellent job of demonstrating how drug laws have always been enacted and selectively enforced to marginalize Americans along racial and economic lines. The numbers are beyond compelling: although the War on Drugs has cost $1 trillion and increased our prison population by 700 percent, drug use in America remains unchanged. And it's nothing short of shocking to learn that there are more African Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in America in 1850, a decade before the start of the Civil War. Entire American towns and regions have become dependent on for-profit prisons — and a constant flow of new prisoners, often incarcerated for life for non-violent drug crimes — to maintain economic viability.
Jarecki transcends the statistics by collecting stories from people from his own past whose lives have been destroyed by the system. If he serves as the soul of the film, it's David Simon, creator of HBO's Treme and The Wire, who becomes its conscience. Simon spent 10 years covering the War on Drugs for The Baltimore Sun and he pops up repeatedly here, always imploring us to be honest with ourselves about the destructive nature of our draconian laws. He winds up describing the drug war as "a holocaust in slow motion." It's powerful stuff, and not to be missed by anyone interested in understanding the social ills that plague us today as never before. — KEN KORMAN