Can One New Film Spread Drug War Outrage Across the Globe?

The House I Live In will cause fresh outrage at the 40-year war on drugs in the United States. Eugene Jarecki, the director of Why We Fight, has made a sprawling and emotional documentary that humanizes the victims of the drug war. It delivers an unequivocal message: The drug war is racist, inhumane and unwinnable, and it must be stopped. And with superstars Danny Glover, John Legend, Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons backing the film and speaking out publicly against the drug war, the film has the potential to reach and educate a much larger audience.

The film comes at the perfect political moment nationally and internationally.

In New York City, the policy of stop-and-frisk, which contributes to 50,000 arrests for marijuana every year, is being challenged. The legalization of marijuana is on the ballot in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, and several Central and Latin American countries are challenging U.S.-enforced drug prohibition and pursuing different forms of legalization.  

Through a mix of archival footage and interviews with drug warriors, drug dealers and users, Jarecki’s film uncovers the truth about the drug war. It’s not about drugs per se, it’s about profits for the few and social and racial control of the many. The illicit drug trade criminalizes millions of poor people of color, strips them of basic civil liberties and puts them under the control of the criminal justice system, often for decades. There are clearly winners and losers in the war.

The House I Live In uses interviews with experts like Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow and Marc Mauer, the director of the Sentencing Project, to show how enormous amounts of society’s resources are used to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate hundreds of thousands of drug law violators every year.

The drug war is a massive job generator from drug courts to Drug Enforcement Administration agents and police officers working undercover on the streets to correctional and probation officers in the prisons that dot the American landscape. The corrections industry is big business and creates profits for companies that build prisons, equips guards with a vast assortment of weaponry, and supplies prisoners with food, jumpsuits, underwear, shoes, telephone access, transportation and health care. These corporations have a material interest in continuing the war on drugs and actively oppose reforms that would decrease the prison population.

Over the past 40 years, the war on drugs has cost taxpayers $4 trillion and accounted for more than 45 million arrests. As the film concludes, what a colossal waste, because illegal drugs are as available as ever.

The film introduces viewers to a complex cast of characters on both sides of the prison bars. Anthony Johnson is a young black man from Yonkers, New York. Sitting alone in a courtroom handcuffed and dressed in prison garb, the fear and anxiety on Johnson’s face is palpable when he realizes he’ll spend the next five years in a cage serving a mandatory minimum sentence for dealing crack. He leaves behind the mother of his newborn.

Johnson’s father, Dennis Whidbee, was a drug dealer. He offers a view of the profession that is different from the heartless predator the mainstream media portrays. He explains the lure of the drug trade is that it makes the man “hood” famous. They’re not all bad guys. Some dealers help the community by paying people’s rent and utilities and putting food in the refrigerator. Whidbee  says, “When the drug dealers came around it was like Christmas.” But Whidbee can’t hold back the tears when he talks about the guilt he has to live with because his son is going to prison on drug charges.

Jarecki’s camera gets in the car with the no-nonsense, all-business Shanequa Benitz as she drives around town making drug deals and delivering marijuana to a steady supply of customers. She’s good at her job and avoids arrest. Benitz struggles with the fact that her work is illegal but she has no other skills. She reasons, “I do what I do to survive.”

Mike Carpenter is the chief of security at Lexington Corrections Center in Oklahoma. He represents the rural, law-and-order, white demographic that depends on the mass incarceration of urban blacks for employment. Currently, one in every eight state employees works for a corrections agency. Carpenter loves his job and seems to revel in the punishing world of prison. He says, “I think they should have written prison guard on my forehead when I was born because it just fits me." In one of the most depressing scenes that sums up the racism at the core of mass incarceration in America, Carpenter locks a black prisoner in his cell and with a smile closes the metal flap to the small glass window in the door, leaving the man in total sensory isolation. But later in the film Carpenter reveals a deep understanding of prison economics. He admits that putting people behinds bars for drug crimes doesn’t stop drug trafficking but it does make some people rich. His cynical and insightful commentary on corrections is full of contradictions. In the end, Carpenter tacitly acknowledges that what he does for a living is inhumane.  

Jarecki’s camera takes us into prisons all over the country. He was granted unprecedented access to areas of prison life that few filmmakers ever see. The images are haunting: men lifting their genitals for strip-search inspections; prisoners in bright orange jumpsuits, heads bowed, shuffling down concrete corridors chains rattling and shackled hand and foot; the echoes of metal doors slamming shut.

Another strength of the film is its indictment of both Republicans and Democrats. The war on drugs has always been bipartisan and in one clip we see Bill Clinton proclaiming to congressional cheers, “Three strikes and you're out!” President Clinton’s “tough on crime” legislation resulted in the largest increase in state and federal prison inmates of any president in American history. But the film doesn't target President Barack Obama, an unapologetic drug warrior. The president made numerous campaign promises to deprioritize arrests for marijuana, yet under his administration, legal medical marijuana dispensaries have been raided continuously and shut down by federal agents. Arrests for marijuana possession that disproportionately target black men continue, and Obama’s Justice Department opposes all ballot initiatives to legalize and regulate marijuana.

The House I live In is that rare documentary that connects many of the dots, with the glaring exception of one. The film doesn’t answer the urgent question of how to end the drug war. That answer is legalization, and treating drug addiction as a public health issue, not a crime. But as the film makes evident, if the war on drugs ends, the drug warriors will lose their power to scapegoat and punish poor black people, and the enormous amounts of money pouring into the prison industrial complex will cease.

David Simon, the creator of the HBO drama The Wire, provides prescient commentary throughout The House I Live In. He calls the war on drugs “a holocaust in slow motion." Anyone who sees this film will agree with him.

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