Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary works so perfectly as a companion piece to Why We Fight (2005) that he could have called it Why We Jail. A devastating dispatch from the front lines of America’s war on drugs, the film tracks the rise of the prison-industrial complex as masterfully as the Vermont-based filmmaker’s previous work took on its older military-industrial cousin.
The common thread? A government that systematically misleads the public (WMD, anyone?) for the financial benefit of private interests. There’s big money, the filmmaker has observed, in sending the country’s lower class off to war, just as there are enormous profits to be made from sending the poor and powerless to prison. The end result of the war examined here is, in many ways, the same. What’s changed is the propaganda.
Jarecki takes us back to the opening salvo, Richard Nixon’s 1971 pronouncement that “America’s Public Enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse,” and moves forward in time from there. He notes the ways in which Democrats and Republicans alike have been saying pretty much the same thing ever since. In the more than 40 years since Nixon’s declaration, we’re informed, the war on drugs has cost a trillion dollars and countless lives, but yielded absurdly little in the way of societal good. Drug use is undiminished. Drug quality has improved. So the question is: Why does the government continue to wage this war?
The writer-director enlists a variety of experts — academics, doctors, law enforcement officers, judges and politicians — to suggest an answer, and intersperses their interviews with illuminating archival footage. Among the most compelling talking heads is David Simon, who worked as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun before creating such TV dramas as “The Wire.”
Simon calls the United States the “jailingest” nation on the planet, pointing out that we account for 25 percent of the world’s prison population even though we’re home to just 5 percent of its people. Mass incarceration, the film reveals, has become a self-sustaining, highly lucrative industry, and America’s drug laws have come to function largely as a means of fueling it and controlling the lower class. Two of the picture’s most harrowing statistics: 56 percent of those in jail for drug crimes are African Americans; half a million of this country’s incarcerated are behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses.
The film features interviews with several such individuals and, in the process, drives home the draconian nature of America’s drug laws, in particular the recently implemented system of mandatory minimum sentences. Aside from helping to make the operation of private penitentiaries immensely profitable, the filmmaker suggests, it’s difficult to see what good these penalties could possibly do.
Jarecki employs a clever technique: Again and again, he introduces a film subject and keeps him or her on camera just long enough to register as a type — a gruff prison guard, a no-nonsense judge, etc. Then he comes back to those individuals later in the film and reveals them to possess anti-drug policy stances we never would have guessed they held. In one of the picture’s most affecting passages, a judge bemoans his obligation to give a young, nonviolent black offender 40 years. He attempts to override the system and recommends a more humane sentence, but the system overrides him.
The most startling use of this technique involves the man who declared the war in the first place. Nixon’s the last person many would suspect of having nuanced, compassionate views on the subject. But Jarecki doubles back to remind the viewer that, in contrast to the current approach, two-thirds of the Nixon administration’s drug-fighting budget was dedicated to treatment.
Now, there’s a quaint idea: helping people rather than warehousing them.
Jarecki will hold a Q&A at the screening of "The House I Live In" on Friday, October 26, 7 p.m. at Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas in Burlington.