Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jason goes to the Roxie and watches THE HOUSE I LIVE IN

A reminder, there is still time to donate to the Roxie's Kickstarter campaign. I know they've already reached their goal, but anything extra is...well, extra. And as any film fan in San Francisco knows, our single-screen art house theaters need all the help they can get. R.I.P., Bridge.

Anyway, on to the movie, THE HOUSE I LIVE IN is a powerful documentary about the effects of the War on Drugs. Especially powerful are the stories of the men charged with fighting the war. The narcotics officers who are no longer rewarded for good police work but are rewarded for the easy work of routine drug busts. Or the judge who sees the inequity of harsh drug sentences (e.g., 100 times harsher punishments for crack vs. powdered cocaine) but whose hands are tied by mandatory minimum sentence laws. It's a particularly chilling statement to hear a judge--a man whose entire calling in life is to dispense justice--talk about going home knowing he was forced in his job to dispense injustice (BTW, for all the fury over 'legislating from the bench' why are there so few complaints about 'adjudicating from the legislature?' Checks and balances are supposed to go both ways.)

And that's not even getting into the common people's lives that are affected--people who need medical treatment, not incarceration. What's so powerful there is not that drugs have such a strong pull on them or that they made bad choices. It's that so often given their living situations and employment prospects, drugs (doing them or selling them) was a completely rational, sensible choice. The doctor in the film has a great metaphor. People do drugs to escape the misery of life. Attacking drugs instead of treating the underlying misery makes as little sense as suppressing the cough associated with pneumonia. So often the "tough on drugs" policies just make life more miserable in those communities, creating conditions where dealing drugs is the only viable economy and doing drugs is the only viable means of (temporary) escape.

It's also full of interesting historical perspective. You may know that Nixon coined the term "War on Drugs" but I didn't know that under Nixon spending was 2/3 treatment and 1/3 law enforcement (privately he knew treating it as a health matter was more effective, publicly he knew "tough on crime" wins more votes than "fair on crime," "sensible on crime," or even "effective on crime.") Going back even further, many drugs used to be legal. We all know Coca Cola got its name because it contained cocaine. Hemp was a major textile crop (Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag on hemp, etc.) And opium was commonly used and sold in toothache drops for children. But California outlawed opium in the 1800's. And why? Well, there was a major influx of Chinese immigrants--hard workers building the railroads for low pay. They couldn't exactly criminalize being Chinese, so they looked at what vices were more prevalent in the Chinese community compared to the white community...and opium is outlawed. Similar with cocaine and blacks (particularly blacks of the post-slavery migration to industrial northern factory jobs.) And marijuana--that's illegal to keep the Mexicans down. There's a fascinating documentary that could be made just on that history.

But ultimately, what makes it work as a movie are the personal stories, including director Eugene Jarecki's good friend Nannie Jeter (his former nanny, although they never called her a nanny, they just called her...Nannie, because that's her name.)

Running Time: 108 minutes
My Total Minutes: 307,980

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