By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
Sundance Review: The House I Live In
This film started out a little slow for me, and it also does two things I’m generally not fond of in documentary films: it uses a great deal of voiceover, and the director integrates himself heavily into the story. But wait, bear with me, because if you stick with this film, it pays off very well in spite of — perhaps even because of — those things. Jarecki’s a tremendously talented documentarian, and he deftly weaves together his family’s personal history and his own relationship with Nannie Jeter, the Black housekeeper/nanny who cared for him and his brothers when they were growing up, with his own growing understanding of the disparity between the paths he and his brothers took and the paths the members of Nanny’s family, with whom the Jarecki brothers grew up, into a greater tale about the War on Drugs and its disproportionate impact on African-American men.
Jarecki talks in the film about how Nannie Jeter is like a second mother to him, how her children and grandchildren grew to become like his extended family. Jarecki and his brothers came of age in a progressive household on the cusp of the civil rights movement, and this is clearly a very personal film for him that’s been percolating, probably for decades — or at least since he became aware of the way his own life and that of his brothers diverged sharply from the paths of Nannie Jeter’s family as they all got older. And the more he investigated, the more he developed what’s essentially the thesis of this film — that the War on Drugs is misguided at best and unfairly targets minorities. And Jarecki hammers his points home, with precision: There are more Blacks in prison now than there were in slavery before the Civil War. African-Americans are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites, even for the same crime. Laws that target crack cocaine make the penalties for sale or possession of crack (which is more likely to be used by African Americans) harsher than those for cocaine in its powder form (which is more like to be used by whites).
Jarecki also puts to good use some vintage anti-marijuana PSAs, which seem laughable today, and contrasts them with the nearly identical messages we’re seeing about other drugs now. And he points out something I didn’t know, and that you maybe didn’t either: That while President Nixon targeted drug abuse as a societal ill, his focus was more on treating drug addiction as a problem that people could be helped to overcome, rather than a crime for which they needed to be locked up. And speaking of locked up, for good measure Jarecki also delves into the myriad issues surrounding mandatory minimum sentences, which tie the hands of judges in being able to truly serve justice in many cases.
It’s a great deal of ground to cover in a roughly 90-minute documentary, but Jarecki is up to the task, weaving the many threads of his story together into a very effective, very engaging and cohesive whole. My one caveat about this film is that for me, it feels like it would play better to a television audience than in theaters. That’s not a criticism of the filmmaking, nor do I see that as a bad thing; it would reach a much broader audience through that medium, and the subject matter is too important to allow it to be swept under a rug.