Big Screen Peter: The House I Live In

by The City Wire staff ( 2 views 

With Arkansas set to vote on Issue 5 (medical marijuana) in just a few short days, there is nothing more appropriate to see as a moviegoer (or citizen) than The House I Live In, a new documentary by Eugene Jarecki.

The film seeks to grant some insight on the culture and history surrounding America's so-called war on drugs. And it does so, in such a sobering, matter-of-fact fashion, that the film is the must-see movie of 2012. There is simply no way around such hyperbolic language. It is the movie the voting public needs to see – hell, should be forced to see.

The sad truth, of course, is that this Sundance Grand Prize winner is showing in roughly 13 theaters across the nation at the moment, the closest of which to Arkansas is to be found in Dallas. So, this review is not only a plea for everyone to see the movie, but an implicit plea to Movie Lounge or AMC Fiesta Square in Fayetteville to pick up the movie for a theatrical release in Arkansas ASAP.

In some ways it is easy for me to write this review and frame it as a duty for all citizens. But I fear, having succumbed to skepticism myself upon seeing the colorful language and platitudes featured in the film's trailer some weeks ago, that the urgency of the message may become obscured by such praise. That viewers might discount the descriptives as impossibly overblown. But, to repeat myself and perhaps compound my worry, The House I Live In warrants such powerful praise. Such ready approval doesn't come easily or frequently.

Jarecki begins the film obliquely, opting to reveal the history of his own parents and their flight from the tyranny of both Hitler & Stalin. This tack, this framing of the great legacy of the second world war — “never again” — plotted next to successive images of the burgeoning civil rights movement implies the war on drugs is the latest of humanity's struggles against tyranny and oppression. Which may seem curious to viewers, if not pointedly specious.

Yet Jarecki, through countless interviews, footage of American politicians, and direct examinations of various lives affected by drug policy, weaves a compelling portrait that dismisses any such skepticism. In fact, the viewer is instead left with a level of skulking guilt, for couched within the documentary is the implicit incrimination of America at-large.

This implication builds slowly though.

Following the historical footage of WWII and the Civil Rights Movement, Jarecki takes a step back to begin an examination of one particular family that he not only has a personal connection with, but is indicative of the struggles of African-Americans in our nation.

From this personal perspective, building blocks are laid out detailing the forces and historicity of the Great Migration, of the displacement of industrial labor, of discriminatory real estate practices, and finally the history of drug laws and enforcement itself. Throughout these explanations and historical documentation, Jarecki showcases interviews with historians, police officers, prison officials, sociologists, psychologists, addiction specialists. A great and compelling tapestry is thus created, showcasing all sides of an encompassing societal problem. And that can't be understated. The film is utterly compelling, even as it implicates us all.

The issue is summed up near the end of the film by David Simon, a former crime-beat journalist and writer/creator of The Wire, the most sweeping American television drama of all time. He refers to the drug war as a “holocaust in slow motion.” In that moment, the oblique naissance is brought full-circle.

After 40 years and countless lives, the war on drugs is at best a misplaced endeavor.

And as depressing as the current situation might seem, the issue is gaining bipartisan support. When folks like Chris Christie, Pat Robertson, and Mike Huckabee agree with someone like Bill Maher, well, optimism comes just a bit easier.