Video Verdict: ‘The House I Live In’

Director Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The House I Live In” focuses on the War on Drugs, an ongoing effort that has resulted in about 45 million arrests.

Director Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The House I Live In” focuses on the War on Drugs, an ongoing effort that has resulted in about 45 million arrests.

Because of the holiday, no major theatrical releases migrated home video during the week of July 4. However, an exemplary documentary about the U.S. War on Drugs filled the void.

The House I Live In

3½ stars (out of four)
Not rated
Virgil Films
Available on: DVD

Americans have long celebrated justice and freedom, but director Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In” forces viewers to look closely at political policies that have turned the nation into the No. 1 jailer in the world. As Jarecki (“Why We Fight,” “Freakonomics”) points out in the documentary, the U.S. contains 25 percent of the world’s prisoners despite possessing only 5 percent of its population.

These are sobering statistics, and Jarecki makes a compelling argument that policies supposedly put in place to protect us have resulted in a massive incarceration machine that is neither just nor morally defensible. In particular, the filmmaker focuses on the War on Drugs, an ongoing effort that results in more than one million arrests every year.

Do these numbers mean America is a land of criminal degenerates? Not according to Jarecki. In “The House I Live In,” he makes a well-reasoned case that society would be better served if most drug offenders were rehabilitated instead of imprisoned.

To be sure, there are arguments for drug laws, and Jarecki doesn’t lobby for their abolition. Rather, he focuses on statistics that call the nation’s current approach into question. For instance, he notes that the majority of people doing time for drug offenses are non-violent. Still, many of these people spend considerable time behind bars because of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.

Jarecki also argues that our laws are skewed to target certain populations, including blacks and the extremely poor. In arguing this point, he compares the penalties for crack cocaine possession to those for the possession of cocaine in pure powder form. Although the two drugs are virtually identical, the penalties for crack possession are far steeper, and crack tends to be a poor-man’s drug.

Perhaps the most satisfying thing about “The House I Live In” is how thoroughly Jarecki makes his case. He starts by explaining that a black nanny raised him, and that her children’s lives suffered due to drug use and abuse. “The House I Live In” is not, however, a simple, first-person sob story. Jarecki interviews people ranging from law enforcement officials to journalists, and all agree that the current system has flaws.

As with many documentaries, “The House I Live In” makes no attempt at objectivity. Rather, Jarecki focuses on his assessment of the situation, making a case for change. He also argues that the War on Drugs has been a distinct and utter failure, making life in America worse. The subjectivity may irritate admirers of current laws, but even those who disagree with Jarecki’s conclusions will be hard pressed to ignore his arguments.

DVD extras are limited to six shorts focused on issues presented in the film.

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– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. E-mail him at forrest@forresthartman.com.

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