“The House I Live In,” Eugene Jarecki's comprehensive and captivating documentary on the United States' 40-year war on drugs, attacks its subject with a point of view — that current policies and statutes are failures — and the supporting evidence Jarecki builds is concrete and persuasive. The statistics and testimonies from players on all fronts are all Jarecki needs to put forward his case.
The director covers all the bases, beginning with Nannie Jeter, the housekeeper who took care of Jarecki during his 1970s childhood in New Haven, Conn. The elderly woman's story, in which generations of her family were impacted by drug abuse, helps bring together a startling narrative about the economic forces that help foster an underground economy of narcotic sales and trafficking.
From there, the director fans out into multiple regions and jurisdictions. Prosecutors, judges, front-line officers, journalists, policy experts, active drug dealers and recently arrested offenders all speak from their personal perspective and experience. Among the most prominent voices is David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who brought his own experiences covering drug arrests and prosecutions to his landmark HBO series, “The Wire.”
While the primary focus of “The House I Live In,” which will be shown at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, begins with President Richard Nixon's 1971 declaration of war on drugs, Jarecki extends his historical reach to include even 19th-century opium prosecutions. But the most compelling elements of the film take place in the here and now. He shows how a kind of industrial complex has grown around drug-related incarcerations, from private prisons to specialized inmate health care, and how one police jurisdiction in Magdalena, N.M., finances much of its operating costs from civil forfeitures, or property confiscated during drug arrests.
For Oklahomans, “The House I Live In” hits home: Jarecki spoke to officials and prisoners at Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, where a large segment of the inmate population is incarcerated for drug-related offenses. One of the interviewed prisoners, Kevin Andrew Ott, is serving a life-without-parole sentence for trafficking methamphetamines. In 1997, Ott became the first person in Cleveland County to receive such a sentence for a crime other than murder.
While Ott's position on enforcement and mandatory minimum sentencing could be predicted, it's the striking candor of Mike Carpenter, the facility's chief of security, that provides some of the most memorable testimony in “The House I Live In.” Carpenter said in the film that in the current environment, the sheer number of convictions ensures that if “you build a bed, you fill a bed.” According to Jarecki, the country's prison population leads the world, with more than 2 million people incarcerated and a rising percentage serving time for drug-related offenses.
Above all else, the documentary illustrates how a system became entrenched and how political forces keep it in place: regardless of party affiliation, every U.S. president has carried through with the war on drugs started under Nixon, and Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were instrumental in escalating it. “The House I Live In” might not change policy, but by shedding light on the fine details of a hot-button issue, the film should start new discussions about how the multiple levels of the country's drug problem are addressed.
— George Lang