Movie Review: The House I Live In

I caught this documentary a few days ago at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, a place I’d never been to before, yet it felt like I was having deja vu.  It had all the elements I remember about film school auditoriums.  Awkward film students as employees, an aura of pretentiousness at every turn, the musty old seats, the selling of “movie cappuccinos”, and the guy sitting in front of me who was writing in a composition notebook at size 4 font throughout the entire film; filling page after page with incoherent handwritten nonsense like he was the killer from Se7en.  Ahhh yes, it felt horrible to be back in that environment, yet awesome to just be a guest.  It makes me wonder how many of my Class of 2006 SIU film brethren (none of whom I’ve kept any contact with), actually went on to do something film/video related?  I went towards a specialized field in this business and got a full-time video editing gig within 6 months of graduating; but half of my class thought they were the next Sam Raimi.  I don’t know where I’m going with that, but I guess I’m saying that the film student weirdo writing really small in his notebook on Sunday will probably be an awesome paralegal assistant one day.  Anyway…  I saw a documentary!

The House I Live In is a doc about the harm that America does to itself by still fighting the “war on drugs.”  The key message of the film is less about the potential dangers of drug use, and more on how the American government has systematically turned the war on drugs into an attack on the poor, and on black communities.

I never felt like the documentary was heavily leaning towards the left or the right side of politics, it never really attacks a political party for their wrongdoing in the matter.  It more so points out the individual and specific people and events that have turned this billion dollar inconvenience into one of the most failed programs in US history.  Using not just opinions, but a lot of numbers and hard truths, The House I Live In straightforwardly points out that for all the money we spend to come down hard on drugs and all the people who have been arrested over the last 40 years for nonviolent drug-related crimes, the actual effect on the amount of illegal drug use in this country hasn’t gone down at all…!

By arresting the users of drugs and giving them *mandatory minimum* sentences which keep them off the streets for around 20 years, we actually do nothing but destroy the lives of the incarcerated guy’s family and weaken the community for which he is part of.  As one person points on in the film (I can’t remember his name, I should have written it down.  Damn you, notebook guy!  You were right!) thinking of the drug users as the ultimate problem on the war on drugs is a lot like thinking that coughing is the target symptom to eliminate when you have pneumonia.  Because even when you get rid of the cough, you’ll still have an infected lung that’s slowly killing you from the inside.

The film also points out how we’ve become a nation dependent on the prison system.  There are actually privately funded prisons that thrive entirely on the fact that they have a plentiful supply of inmates.  So filling them up with nonviolent drug offenders is ideal.  And the government-funded prisons have a dependency of their own.  Who do you think provides the food to these prisons?  The clothes?  Hard workin’ American companies, that’s who!  There are trade shows designed to sell prison wardens the best equipment for their guards.  In addition to that, police officers who work drug cases tend to make significantly more money than other police officers.  Because they make the most arrests, do the most paperwork, and get the most amount of overtime.  Drug related officers often end up making more in overtime at the end of a month than they do from their base pay.  This (unintentionally) distracts the attention away from other crimes being solved.  So, even though the war on drugs is BS, it does offer the opportunity for a lot of Americans to benefit off the misery of others.

Also taken into consideration is the potential racist objective of the drug war.  First through historical theory, such as how opium was used as a scapegoat to incarcerate cheap labor from China near the turn of the century, and the same for folks from Mexico being brought down through the villainization of hemp in the 1930s; the film moves onto African Americans being discriminated against through the crack/cocaine situation.  I’m sure there’s grey area, but for the most part, cocaine is considered a white person drug, and crack is considered a black person drug.  Did you know that the government convicted people using crack with a 100:1 more severe punishment than for cocaine?  So if someone selling cocaine got a 5 year sentence, the guy selling the same amount of crack would get 500 years…!  Let me remind you, crack and cocaine are the same freaking drug, just consumed in different ways.  Very recently (last year I think), the ratio came down so that crack is punished only 18:1 as severe as cocaine.  So basically, the government acknowledged that it was horse crap to demonize crack more than cocaine, but they’re still going to do it, just a little less so.  How do people not get a little suspicious at stuff like this?

The film even brings in a working judge, who has to give a young man a mandatory minimum 20 year sentence for selling drugs.  The judge tells the camera that the guy doesn’t deserve to go to jail for 20 years for his nonviolent crime, but he sentences him it anyway because that’s what the broken system requires.  Mandatory minimums don’t offer much room for arguing against them.  So as sympathetic as this guy’s case was, and all of the elements of his terrible upbringing in play, he’s going to prison for *at least* 20 years no matter what.  For selling drugs.  I did a little research on my own right now, and I found that 2nd degree murder in my home state of Illinois can potentially be served (if given the minimum) in just 4 years.  The *maximum* is 20 years.  Seems fair and balanced, right…?

The House I Live In even goes as far as to compare the war on drugs to that of the first few stages of the Holocaust.  I know, I know, that sounds potentially a little overblown and ridiculous.  But the guy describing it in the movie makes an interesting, broad case for it through the phases that a government goes through to pull something off like that.  He does acknowledge that we won’t ever reach the final step of the process (extermination) in America with the drug war, but isn’t it bad enough that we got through all the steps leading up to the final one?  The dude explains it way better than I could right now, so I’d recommend just checking the film out if you’re interested in hearing that theory.

The director takes a personal approach to the film at times, relating how the criminalization of drugs has ravished the life of a black woman his family knew growing up.  It did add a smaller face to the larger situation, but at the same time I thought it was the weakest story in the film, and he just kept going back to it.  He should have just mentioned her for a couple of minutes and focused more on the big picture.

David Simon, creator of The Wire, is a main interview subject in the documentary.
WORTH NOTING.

The film itself felt rather long, even though it was only 108 minutes.  It hits a few slow spots in the middle and the pacing is a little draggy at times.  There is almost no room to breathe because there is just constant talking throughout the entire film.  There is a lot of information to digest.  Maybe too much for this single film?  But that’s an important word; information.  There are a handful of little theories throughout the film, but a majority of it is straightforward information.  It’s all out there.  Just nothing is being done about it.

Listen, I like to get a little saucy on Puerto Rican rum from time to time, but I’m no drug user.  I think if people want to use drugs, that’s their life they’re potentially wrecking, and it shouldn’t necessarily be the government’s concern that they are wrecking their own bodies.  But I think selling potentially harmful drugs to people (especially teenagers) should be punished, but not to the extent that the government actually does.  The film’s purpose is ultimately to inform people to the reasons why the someone would benefit through punishing people the way they do for drugs, despite the cost and ineffective nature of the initiative.  Just think about it this way…  The war on drugs has been going on for 40 years, it has cost us an incredible amount of money and has ruined the lives of countless amounts of people.  Not just the lives of the guilty, but of their families, and it generates a cycle of repeatable crime amidst the community.  Yet, is there ANY evidence that the war on drugs has ACTUALLY reduced the overall level of illegal drug use in America?

Check this out if you can, it’s very interesting.  All the info is pretty revealing, yet none of it is all that surprising.

8.5 out of 10

 

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