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Film

The House I Live In

Directed by Eugene Jarecki

At MICA’s Brown Center Dec. 13, 7 P.M., with special guest former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke.

Directed by Eugene Jarecki

 

The origins of America’s drug problem date to the late 1800s, when white, middle- to upper-class women and men began to get hooked on opiates. Rampant cocaine use shortly followed. Back then, people who abused drugs were viewed sympathetically. But something changed at the turn of the century. Drug-using minorities (Chinese, African-Americans, and Mexicans mostly) became the focus of police and policy makers. They were vilified and locked away, with hardly a thought put toward treatment. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should.

To date, the United States has spent over $1 trillion and arrested over 45 million people fighting its drug war. Still, drugs have never been more widely available—not to mention more pure. African-Americans are incarcerated at a far higher rate than whites, despite evidence showing that they don’t use more drugs than whites.

Eugene Jarecki examines the failures and consequences of U.S. drug policy and examines over a century of American history in his most recent documentary, The House I Live In.

Jarecki, originally from upper-middle-class New Haven, Conn., moved to the suburbs of New York while still young. When his family’s housekeeper, Nanny Jeter, couldn’t find any other work in New Haven, she uprooted her family to follow the Jareckis. The decision proved to have dire consequences for her children—and also provided the impetus for this film.

Throughout House, Jarecki tries to understand why his life turned out so differently than Jeter’s son, James. The two boys were very close, practically like cousins. But while Eugene attended Princeton and NYU, and eventually became an acclaimed filmmaker, James began shooting heroin and died of AIDS in 1989.

Jarecki and Jeter’s story line unfolds, intercut with talking-head interviews. Jarecki meets with drug dealers, prisoners, cops, judges, doctors, professors, activists, investigative reporters, and even David Simon—each giving either their perspective or personal connection to the drug war, often characterized by sadness and failure.

Simon delivers some of the film’s most cutting lines. One in particular explains the prevalence of drugs while suggesting a much-needed perspectival shift on the matter: “To go down to a drug corner in the inner city is the rational act of somebody going to work for the only company that exists in a company town.”

The House I Live In connects the dots between American slavery, xenophobia, Jim Crow segregation, housing policy, and the prison industrial complex we know today in a well-argued and nuanced way. It’s a film every Baltimorean should want to see, because, when you think about it, who knows this story better than us?

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