The so-called war on drugs has been taking a sound drubbing of late, with nearly everyone who doesn’t have a financial incentive to continue the assorted melees, skirmishes, and outright routings quixotic crusade initiated 40 years ago by President Nixon. We’ve seen 40 years, too, of documentaries both for and against said war, but I can think of none more personal than Jarecki’s. Unlike most other docs, he focuses exclusively on the damage – collateral and self-inflicted – done to a single family, that of African-American family friend Nannie Jeter. As Jarecki, who sparingly narrates, explains: “Nannie Jeter was like a second mother to me. Though she started out working for my family, she was never a nanny. Her children and grandchildren were my playmates growing up.”
As time passed and Jarecki grew up to become the director of hard-hitting, progressivist documentaries like The Trials of Henry Kissinger and Freakanomics, he noticed the unequal burden the war on drugs had placed on African-Americans and, closer to home, the Jeter family. Using his lifelong friendship with the Jeters as a jumping off point, Jarecki’s film highlights the enormous disparities between the races caught up in the war on drugs, and, ultimately equates it with the racial inequality of the Sixties and the lingering failures of the civil rights movement. There is, Jarecki explains, no shortage of reasons for those in power to continue to wage this war, among them the incredible monies to be reaped from the largest for-profit penal system in the world and all that system entails, from the cops on the beat to the judges, jailers, and occasional executioners.
The failures catalogued here are systemic in nature, not just socioeconomic, and the evidence is damning. Over a trillion dollars spent thus far and nothing much to show for it except prison overcrowding, the steady, none-too-silent inroads being made by the Mexican drug cartels, and decimated families countrywide. (On the plus side, we have The Wire and Breaking Bad; the former show’s creator, David Simon, is a canny interviewee here.)
The House I Live In is depressing stuff, but it sparks the fires of anger, and from that anger, possible action. The war on drugs is a house of cards that’s already toppled – officially, according to the 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy – now all that remains is for the reality of that fact to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable shell of Washington.