These days, documentary filmmakers are shouldering much of the burden and bother of investigative journalism that newspapers, magazines, and the rest of the media-massage complex has largely abandoned. But to see them, one has to make an extra effort, and, for a couple of hours at least, choose the nutritious vegetables of education over the indulgent delights of entertainment—though the best in the genre do both.
The Film Society of Mpls./St.Paul is kicking off a four-week festival of award-winning documentaries this week with Eugene Jarecki’s insightful and disturbing drug-war documentary The House I Live In, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The film takes an hour and forty minutes to see, but it’s message—that the so-called “drug war” isn’t about drugs at all—will likely stick with you for some time to come.
Jarecki combines his own highly personal story with a compelling (if somewhat biased and incomplete) investigation into the effects of U.S. drug policy on poor, uneducated African-Americans—policies that have put more than two million U.S. citizens behind bars, decimated the black middle class, and created a virtually inescapable “cycle of incarceration” that ensnares each new generation and has become a culture unto itself.
African-Americans make up 13 percent of the American population, and don’t use drugs any more than white people or other minorities, yet more than 70 percent of the prisoners in this country are African-American. The most chilling idea explored in The House I Live In is that this is no accident—it’s all by design. Under the moral cloak of the “war on drugs,” Jarecki asserts that politicians, law enforcement, and the judiciary have created a systematic win-win-win that marginalizes and disenfranchises African-American men disproportionately, creates jobs for police officers, lawyers, corrections officers, and everyone else along the chain of incarceration, sounds great in “tough on crime” stump speeches, and—through the advent of private prisons—has become a profitable, billion-dollar growth industry.
In interviews with drug dealers, inmates, prison guards, and police officers, and well as academics, activists, doctors, and others (most notably David Simon, creator of the TV series The Wire), Jarecki stitches together an extraordinarily damning indictment of U.S. drug policy, and illustrates with ferocious clarity what most right-thinking people in this country already know: that the so-called “war on drugs” has been a disastrous, trillion-dollar failure.
But it’s only been a failure if the goal of this war is to prevent people from taking drugs, create stronger communities, and give poor people an opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty and participate more responsibly in American society. If, on the other hand, the goal is to perpetuate a class war, get “undesirables” off the street, and ensure that white people maintain power and control in American society, then it’s arguably been a resounding success.
That’s a cynical way of looking at things, but after seeing The House I Live In, it’s hard not to appreciate the ironies involved—and the hypocrisy. It’s not a journalistically “balanced” investigation by any means (The Wire producer David Simon, while extremely articulate, gets a little too much air time, and other sides of the debate don’t get much attention), but it is fascinating to see our system from the inside out, putting the topsy-turvy logic of U.S. drug policy in shameful perspective.
The House I Live In continues at St. Anthony Main theatres though Jan. 24. The rest of the Frozen Docs ’13 festival unfolds like this:
Jan. 18-24: Tchoupitoulas, a lyrical documentary that follows three brothers over the course of one extraordinary night in New Orleans.
Jan. 25-31: Beware of Mr. Baker, an in-depth look at the life and legacy of legendary drummer Ginger Baker (Cream, Blind Faith).
Jan. 25-31: Only the Young, the story of three teenagers growing up in a Southern California desert town decimated by foreclosures and economic collapse.
Feb. 1-7: Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters, a documentary exploring the painstaking methods used by acclaimed still-life photographer Gregory Crewdson.