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Review: “The House I Live In” puts price of “war on drugs” into sharp, tragic focus

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Eugene Jarecki’s film describes the effects of steep mandatory drug sentences.

Earnest, eye-opening and sometimes a little too much like having to take your medicine, filmmaker Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In” delivers a disturbing, plausible thesis: that the “war on drugs” is little more than a social enforcement tool to keep “undesirable” U.S. citizens (a.k.a. African-Americans) in check, incarcerated and under a big-government thumb.

Created, or at least sloganized, by Richard Nixon in a bid for better poll numbers, the national drug war, the movie proposes, has been most successful at two things. One, it helps politicians get elected. Two, it ensures that the most disadvantaged members of the urban black community, who might have turned to drugs either as personal escape or as the only available source of revenue on their streets, never get a chance to get ahead. Instead, they fall into a self-perpetuating cycle. Drugs, prison, parole. No job prospects for an ex-convict. Drugs again, prison again, repeat.

In the film, Jarecki — the director of “Freakonomics” and brother of Andrew “Capturing the Friedmans” Jarecki — hopscotches around the country. Wherever he goes, he finds similar threads among law enforcement officers and their perps. Profiling people they view as likely drug users or pushers, policemen curry favor with their superiors and pad their paychecks by making as many drug busts as they can every month. Other cops, working to solve a single case of rape or murder — crimes with real victims — look like slackers by comparison.

“House” gets its most mileage by focusing on the crushing effect of the mandatory minimum sentences attached to drug crimes by congressional legislation. A baggie of powder can earn a longer prison sentence than rape, armed robbery or murder. It’s a mandate meant to crush lives, with no recourse even for first-time offenders.

The most impassioned talking head in the film is journalist-turned-TV-eminence David Simon. Having covered the drug scene in Baltimore, and then turning what he found into HBO’s landmark series “The Wire,” Simon convincingly argues that drugs aren’t the cause of ruined lives. The culprit is the war on drugs, a war whose real target is communities.

“The House I Live In” ties what has happened to the inner-city black population in recent decades to similar “drug wars” much earlier in U.S. history, when the targets were, for instance, Asian immigrants who were seen as a threat to the white male American workforce. Yes, I know — it all sounds very bleeding heart. But “House” — a solemn, unsexy, eat-your-vegetables sort of doc — is convincing. The problem is that, after watching, you’re not sure what to do about a system that has become an unstoppable monster.

“The House I Live In.” A documentary by Eugene Jarecki. Unrated. 108 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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