Magnifying injustice

'The House I Live In' makes a compelling case to end the drug war

David Accomazzo | Boulder Weekly

A certain segment of the population has always believed Nixon’s War on Drugs to be a tragic waste of time, money and human life. A damning statistic, familiar to those with even a minor interest in the drug boondoggle, comes early in The House I Live In: “Since 1971, the War on Drugs has cost over $1 trillion and resulted in more than 45 million arrests. During that time, illegal drug use has remained unchanged.”

And that’s the documentary in a nutshell. The House I Live In makes an urgent, humanity-based case for ending the drug war while adding little to the conversation. Yet few end-the-drug-war movies have ever woven all the infuriating threads into one cohesive narrative as filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Move Your Money) has, and those who remain ambivalent about the drug war are in for a jarring shock should they view the movie.

The documentary starts small-scale and then pulls back to show a broader picture. Jarecki focuses on his black caretaker, a woman named Nannie Jeter, who was “like a second mother” to him. He was close with her family and children growing up, but as he got older he noticed a growing disparity between their two families. Jeter’s children struggled with hard drugs. Jarecki then asks the next logical questions, looking at the history of mandatory minimum sentences and examining why minorities seem disproportionately affected by the drug war. By the end, you emerge with a clear overview of the absolutely crazy way American society has chosen to enforce drug laws.

The documentary takes pains to interview members of many facets of the drug war, including small-time dealers, prison guards, cops, felons, sentencing judges, lawyers and more. Every dose of sobering statistics is followed by an interview with a human personification of the issue. Seamless editing makes these transitions barely noticeable, helping to condense what could be a multi-volume book into a two-hour documentary.

David Simon, creator of The Wire, plays a prominent role as a sort of secondary narrator to Jarecki, and fans of the show will recognize many of his insights as the ones revealed via the characters of his drug-addled Baltimore. Simon adds concise storytelling and fact-relaying to the documentary, along with his star power, and he serves as the voice of reasonable moral outrage as the film builds to its conclusion.

This is the type of documentary that makes you want to call your congressman. Again, there’s not much new here to those who have closely followed the politics of prisons and drug laws. But the documentary admirably pulls together the disparate elements of history, politics, statistics, sociology and criminology to make a cohesive whole, filling the documentary with enraging “ah-ha!” moments without feeling overburdened. Though The House I Live In adds little to the conversation, it’s a powerful summary of it, and that is enough.

The House I Live In screens at Muenzinger Auditorium at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5. Visit for more information.

Three out of four stars