The House I Live In (2012) is one of those docos where I just want to write a long list of all the lessons I learned whilst watching this film. That probably would not make for a very interesting review though.
The film takes a look at America’s so called ‘War on Drugs’, its (in)effectiveness and its victims. It examines the incredible rates of incarceration, the ruin that has been reaped on entire communities and the racial implications of the war, all the while having essentially no impact on drug use rates. It is plainly an issue that is of interest to a great many people, just take a look at the executive producers of this doco – Danny Glover, John Legend, Brad Pitt and Russell Simmons. The House I Live In mixes broad societal and historical beginnings of the War with personal, contemporary insights. In this regard, the film does a good job at capturing the scope of the issue. We spend time with dealers, cops, academics, judges, and grandmothers who have lost their family to drug use. There are also plenty of talking heads, amongst them creator of The Wire David Simon, who is an exceptionally perceptive voice on this issue. Frankly, when you consider the facts – the war has cost $1 trillion (!), drugs are more widely available than ever, levels of use are unchanged and America now jails more people than any other country on earth (5% of the world’s people, 25% of its prisoners) – it is difficult to comprehend why the War on Drugs continues, with little to no strategic change. Surely if the real issue was drug use, and after 45 years you still had not dented it, you would try something a little different. Unquestioned power is a strange thing though and perhaps drug use is not the real issue, or at least not all of it. This is why it is so important that films like this exist and are seen – to get people thinking about these issues and getting incredulous about them.
The House I Live In is not the most cinematic of documentaries in terms of style, but then again it does not need to be, the information presented does all that is required. The stories told though are cinematic. From the cowboy drug-busting cops to the heart-wrenching stories of the impact that this ill-advised war on drugs has on so many people’s lives, there is no way this film can be flat. No one is saying that drugs are all good and they cause no harm. But that does not mean everything done in the name of combating the issue is acceptable, indeed so much of it is not. David Simon sums up the plight of many communities perfectly when he says “what drugs haven’t destroyed, the war against them has.” It is ironic that the communities most afflicted by drugs fare the worst from the impacts of the supposed war. Ironic, but if you consider the history of these kinds of things, wholly unsurprising. The film does not propose twee, easy answers to what should be done, though it is adamant that the current approach should be canned. The answer they suggest though makes sense not just in terms of drug use, but from an improving society perspective – the enfranchisement of the poor. Can you imagine the opportunity that could be created if you pumped $1 trillion into that cause? Addiction is in many cases a symptom of unhappiness. Cure the unhappiness and you cure the addiction. It’s not just about unhappiness either, it is economic. The jobless poor will always turn to illegal ways to make money if that is the only option to provide for their family. I certainly would if I found myself in that kind of situation.
I feel like a bit of a knob saying that a film is ‘important’, but I think this one really is and I wholeheartedly encourage all of you to check it out. I am sure you will learn just as much as me. It feels like it should be compulsory viewing for anyone in the States and really, with murmurs surrounding drug laws continuing here in Aus, and no doubt in many more places too, the messages contained in this film contain relevance for many more people than just Americans. Be warned though, this is no staid analytical view. It is as devastating and enraging as it is informative.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter