When the credits rolled on Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary, The House I Live In, at Sundance this past weekend, my friend and I bolted out of the theater. There was no way we’d ever be hearing about this documentary again. It was blowsy, unfocused, self-indulgent, unsubstantive, and preposterous.
And then that night it won Sundance’s grand jury documentary prize.
I saw one other documentary in competition, The Imposter. It’s a thrilling and compelling concoction, albeit somewhat imitative of the Errol Morris style. (A French-Algerian twenty-something appears in Spain saying he is actually a missing blond Texas teen—and is accepted into the Texan’s family!) I’m sure some of the other contenders were substantive as well. The idea that The House I Live In would get a prize in any category outside of "Class Materials for a Course in Things Documentaries Shouldn’t Do" is comical.
Eugene Jarecki is best known for the war-machine doc Why We Fight. The House I Live In is mostly about the way the U.S. war on drugs disproportionately affects the African-American community. It begins with Richard Nixon's declaration of the war. Today, Jarecki says, the U.S. imprisons the largest percentage of its citizens of any country in the world. That pointless war—and the undeniable ways it punishes minorities and the financially disadvantaged generally—is, of course, a moral and political travesty of the first order and a worthy subject for a documentary.
But Jarecki’s film almost persuades one otherwise. The writing is bland and condescending, seemingly geared toward sixth-graders. The film is divided into 10 or 12 parts, each introduced by a remarkably banal voice-over from the filmmaker. And those voiceovers reflect one of the largest problems with the movie: Jarecki inserts himself into it whenever possible.
He tells a meandering story near the beginning about his family’s nanny or housekeeper, a woman named Nannie Jeter. She is African-American, and Jarecki seems plainly delighted to portray himself as a White Guy Who Has a Black Friend. They even hug! We come back to Jeter throughout the movie.
In the end, it turns out her connection to the story is this: Her son did drugs, and eventually died from them. You wait for the connection to the criminal-justice system to emerge, but it never does. Jarecki plays up ad nauseam how close he and Jeter are, but he doesn't seem to have known her son at all. In other words, one of the main threads of the movie has nothing to do with its thesis.
But Jarecki makes an even worse use of his own family history. Both his pairs of grandparents, he tells us at the beginning of the movie, came to America to escape religious persecution in Germany and Russia, respectively. Why does he mention this? It’s not clear for a long time, but is made plain in the film’s second half: The war on drugs, Jarecki suggests, is like … the Holocaust. This point is developed by David Simon, the creator of The Wire, and then explicitly laid out by Richard Lawrence Miller (a Lincoln scholar with a flamboyant set of whiskers who is rather unfortunately filmed in a highly unflattering way).
The final step in these alleged parallels between the war on drugs and the Holocaust is, according to Miller, "elimination." That is to say, the federal government is engaged in a deliberate plan to kill African-Americans. The utter idiocy of all of this is only underlined by a) the laborious detailing of it and b) the fact that Jarecki goes through the list twice.
The war on drugs is one of a large set of relatively victimless crimes and behaviors that our nutty society for one reason or another criminalizes. The movie goes into great historical detail to make the case that drug laws always get ramped up to target minorities—but that ignores the hysteria white teen drug use in the 1960s engendered. (The film also, exasperatingly, ignores Prohibition.) Jarecki eventually gets to meth, a somewhat uncomfortable issue given that the law-enforcement hysteria surrounding meth is directed largely at whites, not blacks. Here, he and Simon have to backpedal and posit that the drug war is race- and class-based. But the meth issue utterly undermines Jarecki’s history of how drugs are always criminalized when minority groups start using them.
There’s a lot any good liberal will agree with in The House I Live In. (The title, incidentally, is taken, heavy-handedly, from a famous ’40s short film on racial tolerance.*) There’s a federal judge who doesn’t like mandatory sentencing laws. A police drug squad whose members eventually admit they do more harm than good. But Jarecki’s ham-handed take on the issue overall pretty much ensures his new film won’t be changing any minds.
*Correction, Feb. 2, 2012: This blog post originally misstated the decade in which the short film about racial tolerance was made.