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DVD Review: ‘The House I Live In’

★★★★☆

The United States of America now officially holds 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. This is just one of the many staggering statistics highlighted in Eugene Jarecki’s urgent and enthralling documentary, The House I Live In (2012), which now arrives on DVD in the UK courtesy of doc specialists Dogwoof. Giving a uniquely personal angle to his investigation, Jarecki was roused into action to explore the impact that narcotics have had on the family of his childhood nanny, Nannie Jeter. The resulting expose is a searing indictment of America’s decades-long, Ahab-esque ‘War on Drugs’, which has so-far failed in its goals.

In June, 1971, Richard Nixon declared that abuse of illicit substances was public enemy number one. This ongoing battle has since seen over $1 trillion spent and harsh sentencing introduced; with half a million Americans currently incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes. Through interviews with journalists, academics, campaigners, judges, and offenders, Jarecki attempts to quantify the effect of drugs, and the consequent law enforcement, on black communities. What the film results in, however, is an penetrating look both at sentencing and deeper, more concerning, issues regarding US drug policy.

With eloquent and insightful interviewees such as journalist and writer of The Wire, David Simon, and Federal Judge Mark Bennett, the film calls attention to the injustices of unequal sentences, the frustrations with the ‘mandatory minimum’ and ‘three strikes’ rules, and the troubling historical motives behind many American drug laws. A vicious cycle is perpetuated by these regulations and presented here is the opinion that they have become a stick with which poorer citizens, particularly in black communities, are repeatedly beaten. If there is a flaw in The House I Live In, it may in fact be its ambitiously expansive scope, as Jarecki never affords too sharp a focus on one individual problems.

The House I Live In speeds through a potted history of American drug legislation, disproportional sentencing, ghettoising, political approval ratings, police payment structures, and the big business of building prisons. Yet despite all of this information constantly being fired at the audience, The House I Live In is never overwhelming. Instead, we’re provided with moments of heart-wrenching regret, instances of keen insight from unlikely sources, and compelling arguments from impassioned advocates. Jarecki paints a broad picture of a society with an enormous problem – and it’s imperative viewing.

Ben Nicholson