“The House I Live In,” a moving and highbrow documentary on the human toll of the U.S. War on Drugs by the rabblerousing polemicist Eugene Jarecki, attempts to tackle the complex issue of drug policy from two sides; and the fact that it succeeds spectacularly on one level greatly makes up for its failure on the other.
The film’s outstanding success centers around its ability to weave numerous human dramas together in a way that both respects and refuses to glamorize the film’s subjects. Front and center is the maternal relationship between the film’s director and his childhood nanny whose birth name, improbably, is Nannie. Jarecki speaks lovingly of the kindly old woman who acted as a second mother to the smart and privileged child he once was, but his nostalgia is tinged with regret. When Nannie followed the Jareckis out of New Haven, Conn. to their new home in Long Island, she left behind a wayward son who turned to dealing drugs in the absence of his mother’s guidance and inevitably ended up in prison. The tragic anecdote sets the tone for the rest of the film, in which so many choices made with benign or even good intentions result in terrible consequences.
With his confident directorial hand, the veteran Jarecki rejects melodrama in favor of understated studies which neither attempt to apologize for his subjects nor ever stand in judgment; the facts are simply presented, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions. A haunting example is found in the case of Dennis Whidbee, who grew up in New York City’s public housing projects and used to deal drugs as a way to make ends meet. Now a contrite and conflicted figure, he is interviewed by the beach in his new home state of Florida, thousands of miles removed both from his former life and from his young son, Anthony Johnson, whom he left adrift without paternal direction. The film cuts to Johnson himself, who reveals that as a child, all he knew about his father was that he dealt drugs. Between shots of the youthful, almost cherubic Johnson wearing a hopeful smile betrayed by the haunting sense of doom creeping over his young gaze, the father breaks down as he confides in the camera that when he heard that his son had been arrested for dealing, he honestly wasn’t surprised. No condemnation is rendered for Whidbee’s absentee fatherhood; no apologies made for his or his son’s actions. The situation is simply shown for what it is, and the effect is devastating.
Equally heartbreaking is the story of Carl Hart, a handsome and articulate black man who appears to walk easily between very different worlds. Having grown up in a poor neighborhood himself, Hart apparently refused to participate in the drug trade of his peers and instead dedicated himself to schoolwork. He attained an astonishing level of success, earning a PhD in neuroscience and becoming a tenured professor at Columbia University – yet his polished delivery and thoughtful mien mask a tragic secret from his past. Jarecki’s treatment of Dr. Hart attains a level of subtle mastery, placing the driven young academic in a visual space which doesn’t quite harmonize with his former friends in the old neighborhood, but also keeps him from the chiaroscuro framing of the intellectual superstars who lend their scholarly insights to the film as experts and whose company Dr. Hart aspires to join.
Alas that the intellectual element is the film’s only weakness. Although the interviewed experts (including Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School, “The New Jim Crow” author Michelle Alexander, and “The Wire” creator David Simon) make very good points, the film itself barely seems to acknowledge the incredible complexity of the drug policy conundrum, focusing instead on repeating the chorus of “drugs are bad, the drug war is worse” throughout. In fairness, most of this failure stems from the format: there is just no way to thoroughly cover every relevant aspect of domestic drug policy in 108 minutes. Yet when the film’s third act winds down to its gut-punching thesis indictment analogizing the drug war to some of the horrific war crimes of history, its conclusion smacks of overreaching.
In most cases, this will not matter. Although some viewers might exploit the film’s academic flaws to assuage their own complicit consciences, anyone with a shred of pathos intact will find themselves moved by the toll of sweeping human loss experienced by the end of the cinematic journey. Despite the enormous challenges of addressing a complicated topic with no easy answers, the community of conscientious Americans who get treated to “The House I Live In” will have no choice but to demand change, won over by the power of the film’s considerable emotional impact. Watch it with your parents.
First appeared in Issue 7 of Cannabis Now Magazine.
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