The House I Live In (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Maria Garcia
Produced by Eugene Jarecki and Melinda Shopsin; directed and written by Eugene Jarecki; cinematography by Sam Cullman and Derek Hallquist; edited by Paul Frost; music by Robert Miller. Color, 108 min. A Charlotte Street Films release, http://www.thehouseilivein.org/, now available for online viewing.
Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In began when he and a friend, Nannie Jeter, attended the funeral of a young relative of Jeter’s, a woman who had long struggled with drug addiction. In the 1960s, Jeter had been the Jarecki family’s housekeeper and a “second mother” to the filmmaker. Her children and extended family were his childhood playmates. Over the years, Jarecki watched as these friends and acquaintances grappled with poverty and, in some cases, jail time. Many of them had been at the funeral where, afterward, Jarecki asks Jeter, a Virginia-born black, what she thinks went wrong with the lives of these friends. Her reply starts with the story of her son who died after sharing a needle contaminated with the AIDS virus.
Jarecki, who is best known for his investigation of the modern military-industrial complex in Why We Fight (2005), takes on sprawling subjects, often glossing over complex details. He is an unapologetic advocate for leftist causes. In The House I Live In, his topic is America’s “war on drugs,” yet here the filmmaker’s broad examination is shaped by a compelling personal perspective. After explaining how his immigrant Jewish parents instilled in him a sense of social responsibility, Jarecki admits that they also rather thoughtlessly separated Jeter from her own children. When the Jareckis moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to a New York City suburb, they offered to double their housekeeper’s pay if she came along—apparently, without her family.
The consequences of their decisions, still felt by succeeding generations, are Jarecki’s springboard for identifying the drug war’s divisions of race and class across America. Some of these are familiar, such as the overwhelming majority of black males among the prison population, although the documentary emphasizes the number incarcerated on drug charges. Other perspectives are less commonly heard, like that of historian Richard Lawrence Miller (Drug Warriors and The Prey, Praeger, 1996). He discusses the ways in which drug laws were used to target various immigrant groups. By the time Miller explains his theory about the stages of identification, isolation, and oppression—the same ones to which genocide victims are subject—and infers a similarity to victims of the drug wars, Jarecki has already provided portraits of such men and women. Prisoners, small-time drug peddlers, and their families, they are disenfranchised blacks and whites in Florida, Iowa, New York, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island.
The filmmaker narrates the documentary, and proceeds as any investigative journalist would, gathering evidence and interviewing experts, among them Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2012); Mark Bennett, a judge in Iowa; academics from Harvard and John Jay College; several journalists; a medical doctor; producer and activist David Simon (The Wire); and Mike Carpenter, an officer in an Oklahoma corrections center. Jarecki relies on intertitles to impart statistics, such as the apparent disparity between the percentage of blacks who use drugs, fourteen percent, and the proportion they represent of prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes, fifty-six percent. No sources are cited, and some of Jarecki’s conclusions are obviously based on anecdotal evidence.
The most compelling arguments in the documentary concerning where America has gone wrong in its war on drugs, arise from the same strategy Jarecki employed in Why We Fight: He follows the money. Not surprisingly, he discovers that drug wars are profitable for many sectors of the American economy, especially law enforcement. The assets seized from drug offenders sometimes ends up in the coffers of police departments. A marshal from Magdalena, New Mexico, explains to Jarecki that the police car he’s driving was paid for with money and property appropriated from those convicted of possession or sales. Apparently, the rising rate of incarceration and the length of prison sentences for drug offenses in the United States also allow entire towns to depend upon correctional facilities and jails for employment.
No one knows the size of the market for illegal drugs in America—Jarecki’s unattributed estimate is $16 billion—but most experts agree that our market is the largest in the world. While there are historical class and income differences among illegal drug users, these dimensions are complex and fraught with profiling pitfalls, so Jarecki devotes much of the documentary to the racial divide. For instance, black Americans are most affected by the inequalities in sentencing for possession of powder cocaine and crack/cocaine—cocaine mixed with baking soda—heated until it crystallizes. The latter is a drug used predominantly by white Americans, yet the overwhelming majority of crack convictions have been brought against blacks. Jarecki never adequately explains this circumstance, except to show cops trolling through neighborhoods of color looking for drugs.
The audience is left to puzzle through archival clips of a congressional hearing on this disparity. The hearing focuses on the harsh mandatory sentencing rules passed by Congress against the advice of the United States Sentencing Commission, which is an independent judicial body organized by Congress. First, to illustrate the effect, Jarecki explores the case of Maurice Haltiwanger, a young black man in Iowa with previous convictions, serving a twenty-year sentence for possession of fifty grams (less than two ounces) of crack. Only someone with eighteen times that much powder cocaine and a record of other drug charges would receive a similar sentence. In his rush to advocate for overturning mandatory sentencing—an opinion shared by many legal experts and by some on the U.S. Supreme Court—Jarecki demonizes those in Congress with the opposite point of view.
The congressional hearing segment features the much-reviled Senator Arlen Specter, which signals to progressive audiences that government is the source of the racial divide in mandatory sentencing. Specter, famous for his grilling of Anita Hill during Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is shown proclaiming: “These people are killing our children.” It is unclear to whom he is referring, and since Jarecki has already indicated that whites constitute the majority of crack users, racism is a dubious claim. Had he plied the more effective course of picking apart the fallacious arguments of Senate opposition to mandatory drug sentencing, including that a larger number of violent crimes are committed by those on crack than those abusing powder cocaine, a clear pattern of the multitude of class and race prejudices converging on black offenders might have emerged—including institutionalized racism.
Jarecki’s attack on the federal government, the advocate’s easy target, prevents the audience from perceiving its own sense of responsibility for these racist outcomes. Later, the filmmaker attempts to repair this lapse with a sermonizing sequence in which several interviewees exhort the audience to change mandatory sentencing laws. The House I Live In succinctly speaks to the issue of personal responsibility in the choice to use illegal drugs. But by leaving to the end the audience’s culpability—and, by extension, that of all Americans—to address the circumstances under which people turn to illegal drugs, the film more easily spins conspiratorial arguments, such as the ones against Congress and law- enforcement authorities.
Jarecki’s methods are more effective when he discusses the genesis of America’s war on drugs by pointing to President Nixon who, ironically, took the most enlightened approach to addiction. Archival footage shows Nixon remarking that no one uses drugs unless they feel dissatisfied with their lives. Michelle Alexander explains that two-thirds of the former president’s budget was devoted to treatment, and the remainder to law enforcement. Jarecki then wonders why Nixon’s approach was abandoned. The answer lies with the advent of crack in the 1980s, but also with a well-known political reality, that candidates who are “tough on drugs” win elections. An example of Jarecki’s broad-strokes approach at its best, this sequence illustrates how a facile election strategy results, over time, in government policy initiatives that harm the most vulnerable Americans, and fail to solve the problem of drug addiction.
The House I Live takes its title from a sentimental song of the same name that spotlights America’s racial and religious diversity. Its refrain begins, “What is America to me?” and is answered with the line, “The house I live in,” followed by phrases such as “my neighbors white and black.” Perhaps the best and most significant recording is Paul Robeson’s, heard on the documentary’s soundtrack. (It was also performed by Frank Sinatra in a hackneyed 1945 short that criticizes anti-Semitism, while making blatantly racist remarks about the Japanese.) The irony of Robeson’s wonderful bass-baritone voice praising Revolutionary War heroes and our slave-owning forefathers crystallizes for Jarecki the “promise denied” to black Americans. Alexander best illustrates this point when she explains that more blacks are incarcerated in prisons today than were slaves in the mid-nineteenth century.
The most compelling sequences in The House I Live In illustrate the intergenerational effect of drug abuse. For instance, Jarecki interviews Dennis Whidbee, a former drug user and peddler, and his son Anthony Williams, recently arrested on drug charges. Equally effective are his conversations with young black and Latino men and women, such as Shanequa Benitez who lives in the same Yonkers housing project as Williams. The young people’s real-life experiences depict a shameful reality of urban life—often the only local economy which offers impoverished youths employment is the drug trade in their neighborhoods. Sometimes, though, Jarecki’s advocacy agenda limits these interviews to only the most common circumstances under which these teenagers begin selling drugs, so that the audience never really gains a deeper understanding of their lives. That task falls to the documentary’s experts whose astute observations pale in comparison, for example, to Benitez’s disturbingly steely self-possession.
Like The House I Live In, Jarecki’s documentaries rely mostly on testimony and narration, not on visual style. And, as is the case with advocates on all sides of the political spectrum, subtlety is not his strong point. On the other hand, Jarecki’s perspicacity often results in lucid, straightforward films, which are never overweening or self-referential. What makes The House I Live In so potent is the filmmaker’s sincerity. Despite a preference for sweeping statements and conclusions, he establishes palpable emotional connections to several of his subjects who are victims of the war on drugs, especially to Jeter. While at first their relationship feels contrived, the documentary unfolds with their regrets as subtext, Jeter for accepting the terms of her former employers, and Jarecki for his ignorance of the true source of his friend’s suffering—and perhaps for his family’s complicity in it.
Maria Garcia is a New York City-based film critic and feature writer.
To purchase The House I Live In, click here.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2