A sobering visit to the front lines
By Sean O’Connell
Friday, October 12, 2012
Technically, “The House I Live In” isn’t season six of “The Wire.” But Eugene Jarecki’s investigative documentary probing our nation’s futile war on drugs is so similar in tone and intent to HBO’s acclaimed series that fans of the defunct television program will want to take a look.
Having “Wire” godfather David Simon serve as one of Jarecki’s talking heads makes the comparison stronger. A former Baltimore Sun crime reporter, Simon parlayed his experiences with our criminal justice system into writing and producing jobs for such shows as “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” The drug war remains Simon’s chief beat, and when he speaks about the fractured history and current problems plaguing our nation’s drug-enforcement policies, his eloquence and conviction compel you to lean forward and listen. He and the other experts shape this potentially dry documentary into an absorbing, disturbing sit.
Jarecki’s motivations to build “House” were personal. After witnessing the damage drugs inflicted on his family’s longtime housemaid, Nanny Jeter, Jarecki trained his cameras on various fronts in the ongoing war on drugs, hoping to spot progress.
As he proved with the military-themed “Why We Fight,” Jarecki is a thorough investigator who enhances his documentaries with access to knowledgeable specialists. “House” has an agenda, but Jarecki strikes a necessary balance as he analyzes the drug war from multiple angles, letting us draw our own depressing conclusions.
“House” swarms key battlegrounds. Jarecki tails DEA agents in Miami, narcotics officers in Rhode Island and border-patrol cops in New Mexico as they lament the self-perpetuating cycle of the average drug abuser. He follows Shanequa Benetiz, a low-level dealer who talks candidly about the lack of prospects afforded her by being born into poverty. On the other side of the equation, Jarecki interviews an Iowa judge who admits that mandatory court sentences create an insurmountable disadvantage to convicted users and dealers.
“House” hits upon points many of us already have heard: Drug abuse sends users down dead-end streets; prisons burst at the seams with repeat offenders penalized by the United States’ strict anti-drug laws; and the government spends way too much on the publicized war on drugs while making very little progress.
Jarecki’s research, however, prompts his experts to make increasingly bold statements regarding the history of the war on drugs, which dates to President Richard M. Nixon’s term. Disgusted prison guards confess to Jarecki that politicians prefer judicial tactics over proper drug counseling, because elected officials need to appear tough on crime to their constituents. Advocates for drug-law reform point to an invisible attack on America’s lower class, saying current laws turn subsets of our nation’s communities into common enemies that we, as a society, can rally against. Simon goes so far as to say the war on drugs targets specific classes (and, often, races) in what he describes as a “Holocaust in slow motion.”
Yet, much like “The Wire” (or similar crime-based fictional dramas), “House” hits hardest when it’s putting a personal spin on its statistics. Months from now, you likely won’t recall figures placed on title cards informing us that 1.7 million American children have a parent in prison. But it’ll be tough to forget the face of young Anthony, the son of a substance-abusing father who’s lured into his neighborhood’s drug-peddling community by the promise of money, respect and power. I desperately hope Jarecki’s educational film can get in front of more kids like Anthony before it’s too late.
Contains bad language and discusses drugs and drug abuse.