Eugene Jackeri’s ‘The House I Live In’ (2013) is a comprehensive meditation on the failures of America’s war on drugs. Filmed over 5 years across 25 states, the film’s scope is expansive. It interrogates every aspect of a destructive, amoral and essentially ineffective system. Jackeri traces the origins of the war on drugs, from its conception under Nixon and its escalation under Reagan, discerning how political rhetoric morphed a public health issue into a national criminal justice imperative. He exposes the war’s casualties, revealing the system as a human rights crisis where minority groups and the poor are fed into a vicious cycle of mass incarceration. Finally, ‘The House I Live In’ examines ‘the prison industrial complex’, the sinister machinery that sustains this endless war waged against America’s own people. The war on drugs has failed. That much this documentary makes starkly clear. But ‘The House I Live In’ achieves more than this. It sparks a consideration of the war on drugs as a hideous reflection of a society where the primary value is capital, causing us to darkly question whether this war waged against ordinary people is in fact ‘a success only not on the publicly stated terms…’
Jackeri builds his case for the failure of the war on drugs upon the testimony of countless experts spanning numerous disciplines coupled with incredible access to individuals in the system itself. Testimony from; medical professors, addiction experts, historians, civil rights scholars, journalists, academics, prison guards, narcotics police and a federal judge (the list goes on), provides an aerial view of the socio-political landscape that shaped America’s destructive drug policy and its catastrophic effects. ‘The House I Live In’ is so powerful because it achieves a careful balance between the demands of holistically addressing such a large issue and keeping human stories at the film’s heart. Its origins are intensely personal. In Jackeri’s youth his family, who had fled persecution in Russia and Germany, employed an African-American housekeeper Nannie Jetter (Nannie is her real name). Their families grew close. Over the years Jackeri noticed poverty, joblessness, crime and suffering in Nannie Jetter’s family. When he asked her why she thought this was, her surprisingly simple answer of ‘drugs’ provided the starting point for Jackeri’s film. ‘The House I Live In’ is shaped by Nannie Jetter’s experiences framing the film as a personal journey of discovery.
Keeping Nannie Jetter at the film’s core foregrounds how expertly Jackeri allows real people to make his arguments. A particularly moving instance is the case of Anthony Johnson, a non-violent 24 year old arrested for drug trafficking and facing a potential 5-40 year sentence. He is one of many in this film who fall victim to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It is through Anthony’s situation that we are able to see how mass incarceration in minority communities forms a ‘vicious cycle [that] spans generations.’ The statistic that ‘2.7 million children in the US have a parent behind bars, these children are more likely to be incarcerated during their lifetime than other children’ is made tragically real by our meeting Anthony’s baby daughter who he has never met, and later Anthony’s estranged father Dennis Whidbee. Dennis was also consumed by the trade, spending much of Anthony’s childhood selling drugs out of public housing to support his own addiction. In a moment of striking vulnerability Dennis reflects on his struggles with fatherhood. Speaking directly to camera, his frustration and pain is palpable as he says ‘ I didn’t know how to really be their Dad…I knew I was supposed to…I didn’t have one…I didn’t know how to stop doing what I was doing to be their Dad.’ Moments like those we spend with Anthony’s family movingly locate the human cost of America’s drug policy.
Not only is The House I Live In’ incredibly informative, it is beautifully made. The cinematography is captivating, often expressing wordlessly the documentary’s central concerns. In one of the film’s most memorable shots the camera slowly zooms in on an inmates face pressed against the glass of small rectangular window. His face is the only sign of life in a silent sea of white locked cell doors. It is a powerful portrait of isolation. Describing this shot Jackeri mentions ‘you can feel the camera man’s hand trembling.’ The way shots like this are interwoven with interview and archival footage, alongside a carefully curated soundtrack including the likes of Bill Withers and Lou Rawls, makes the film’s form masterful.
‘The House I Live In’ primarily addresses the disproportionate effect of the war on drugs on black Americans. It identifies; how drug laws from their very conception are rooted in the threat of Otherness, how structural impediments perpetuate the cycle of mass incarceration, and how policing both targets and destroys minority communities. At the film’s coda however, David Simon (Journalist and creator of The Wire) introduces a chilling hypothesis. What if the war on drugs is the true expression of our capitalist society? Where the poor, without the protection of the minimum wage, unions, or access to proper housing are no longer seen as legitimate citizens. What if drug policy provides a convenient and deliberate means to ‘get rid off the bottom 15% of the country’ and ‘make money off locking them up?’ Simon’s words, ‘at what point don’t we say kill the poor?’ made me consider in a new light just how pressing this film still feels 5 years after its release. The current opioid crisis predominantly effecting poor white Americans seems to prove Simon’s claim that ‘in the end capitalism is pretty colour blind.’ But looking beyond drugs to the socio-political climate in both the US and here in the UK, this film has given me pause to think about what kind of house it is that we live in.
Where can you find it?
Amazon (You can get a free 7 day Sundance subscription which includes this film)
Also YouTube and Google Play for a few $$
Want more on this topic?
If you interested in mass incarceration/prison reform I would also encourage you to watch:
Time: The Kalif Browder Story (4 part series)
The Central Park Five
Into the Abyss