I have read the statistics for years now about the failed War on Drugs, prison-industrial complex, inflexible mandatory sentencing guidelines, and destructive impact of the justice system on African-American communities and lives. Judges and prison administrators are fed up. Addicts are incarcerated and remain mired in addiction. Families are destroyed. Still, at the end of the 2012 Sundance-winning documentary, "The House That I Live In," directed by Eugene Jarecki, I sat in stunned silence with a million thoughts racing in my head about the connected dots. This rarely happens to me and even less often about familiar topics.
"The House That I Live In," which the International Film Series is screening Tuesday, March 5th at 7 and 9pm, pulls together numerous different pieces of American dysfunction and inequality to present a devastating indictment of how our country deals with race and class. It sucks in the viewer with a personal story, that of how the War on Drugs has affected the family of the director's childhood housekeeper. It interweaves this narrative with interviews with people involved in the system (judges, prison officials, prison guards, etc.), historical information about the War on Drugs, interviews with a senator who helped create the situation, and other broader information.
The cherry on top of the sundae is an interview with David Simon, creator of the HBO five-season bravura meditation of the corrosive War on Drugs, "The Wire." As a journalist in Baltimore, Simon had
first-hand exposure to the Baltimore inner city and the impact of drugs on African-American communities. So, the man has cred and isn't just a Hollywood talking head. And any man who conceived of each season of his show as a novel with a meaty and important overarching theme and can write a scene where the principals communicate exclusively with various manifestations of a curse word is alright with me. Ok, sue me--I'm a fan, maybe even a rabid fan.
I thought Simon was going to offer some choice words about drugs and African-American communities. Instead, he delivers an analysis near the end of the film of how America has treated and conceives of its underclass that put the previous material of the film into a context that totally blew my mind and brought up questions for which I have no answers.
In the waning of the empire, there are no endless opportunities and brighter days for everyone, much less our poor and working class. In an era of budget-cutting and austerity, educational institutions, never stellar in poorer communities,cannot provide the way out. Hell, we are even cutting back food subsidies to poor mothers and their infants and toddlers. And there are politicians who are cheering on these measures. Simple reality in this country keeps falling into a bad case of surrealism. It stands to reason that films that put the pieces together, rather than plunge me into escapism, blow my mind.
I know this probably reads more like a lefty screed and less like cinematic analysis. But when it comes down it, I believe that cinema is at its best when it opens my mind and makes me wonder about the world. Sometimes, this takes the form of a fictional aesthetically beautiful fantasy, like "Holy Motors" where I found myself contemplating reinvention and the protean nature of identity and performance. Other times, it is a documentary that slaps me across the face, holds me rapt with its varied way of presenting vivid and important information, and haunts me with its ideas.
The end result is this is a film that I want everyone I know to see. It's important, provocative in the best sense of the word, and worth the time. Hopefully, you can come up with better solutions to the issues that it brings up than I have.
If there's only one film that you see at the IFS this semester (and given the quality of the offerings, that would be a shame), show up for this film and invite your friends to come with you.