Movie Interviews
3:00 pm
Sat January 21, 2012

Drugs At The Center Of 'The House I Live In'

Originally published on Sat January 21, 2012 6:42 pm

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HOUSE I LIVE IN")

NANNY JENNER: Drugs is a monster. The killing, the stealing, those people being destroyed, it's devastating.

RAZ: Since 1970, the war on drugs has cost over two and a half trillion dollars and resulted in more than 44 million arrests. During that time, sales of illegal drugs have grown steadily. That statistic hangs on the screen like a warning sign in a new documentary by Eugene Jarecki. It's called "The House I Live In." Jarecki is the man behind the award-winning film "Why We Fight." It's about the military industrial complex. Now, he's tackling the war on drugs and its consequences. The movie debuts at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, and it begins with a very personal story. It's a story of how drugs upended the family of the woman we just heard from, Eugene Jarecki's childhood housekeeper, Nanny Jenner.

EUGENE JARECKI: Well, Nanny Jenner is like a second mother to me. I've known Nanny, and she's known me, my whole life. Her name is actually Nanny. It's her birth name.

RAZ: She lost one of her sons, of course, to AIDS. He was a drug user and contracted it from a dirty needle.

JARECKI: Yeah, yeah. And I grew up with her children. I knew them very closely. And Nanny is African-American. And I think we all grew up in a kind of a utopian post-civil rights mindset where we thought America had entered a really new time and that opportunity awaited us. And what I watched happen over the years was that members of her family who've grown up alongside me, they didn't find the same kind of opportunities I found. They weren't blessed in the ways that I found myself to be blessed by circumstance. Instead, they met a new kind of challenge, what Michelle Alexander, who's in the film, calls a new Jim Crow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HOUSE I LIVE IN")

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, in any war, you've got to have an enemy. And when you think about the impact, particularly on poor people of color, you know, there are more African-Americans under correctional control today, in prisoner jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. And that's something we haven't been willing to look in the mirror and ask ourselves. What's really going on?

JARECKI: But what I discovered is that something was holding a great mass of black people back in a new and very different way, and that's what the film starts to uncover.

RAZ: Then, of course, in the case of Nanny Jenner, was drugs what sort of unraveled her family's life. And you began to explore the question of drugs and the relationship between drugs and incarceration. And so then, of course, your journey began.

JARECKI: Virtually everyone I spoke to said, well, sure, drugs are a problem and they're a public health concern. But something much larger has happened that's far more damaging than the drugs themselves, and that's namely the war on drugs. That, as David Simon, who created "The Wire" is in the film and he has a marvelous way of thinking about this. And at one point in the film, he says, you know:

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HOUSE I LIVE IN")

DAVID SIMON: We are the jailingest country on the planet, beyond Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China. Nobody jails the population like we do. And yet, drugs are pure than ever before. They're more available. There are younger and younger kids willing to sell them. It'd be one thing if it's draconian and it worked. But it's draconian, and it doesn't work, and it just leads to war.

RAZ: The war on drugs, the beginnings of it, are generally attributed to the administration of President Nixon.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: President Nixon promised an all-out war on drug addiction.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The president stretches with law enforcement to tighten the noose around drug peddlers.

RAZ: But in the film, you describe President Nixon's take on it is - the way it's described seems comparatively progressive.

PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Because a program of law enforcement alone is not enough.

JARECKI: Well, Nixon is kind of complex, kind of fascinating. And yes, he declared a war on drugs and was really the first modern day tough-on-crime candidate. And as such, he proved his success for a politician of running a tough on crime campaign. And yet, though he declared a war on drugs, privately, his policy was that he spent two-thirds of his drug budget on treatment rather than criminal justice.

NIXON: This means that on the treatment of addicts, we must go parallel...

JARECKI: And yet, when the 1972 election approaches, even though he knows the treatment is working better, he recognizes that talking tough on crime gets you elected. And that forges for decades that we've now been experiencing this American model where politicians understand that it is successful to talk tough on crime, even though that may be misguided and terribly destructive to the goals of the country. And they also know that not doing so by now is considered a form of political suicide.

RAZ: Let's go back to the criminalization of drugs because the film - as the film points out, back in the 19th century and the early 20th century drug use today that is illegal - opium and cocaine and marijuana - back then was not. How did these drugs become thought of in the way we think of them now?

JARECKI: Sure. Well, once upon a time, those people who used opium and people who used it ever excessively were seen sort of sympathetically as though it were a public health concern. But then something happened that teaches us a great deal, and that was that all of a sudden, laws began to be passed outlawing opium. But they weren't laws all across the country. They were only laws in California and only for one specific way of using opium, namely smoking it and why? Well, it had nothing to do with smoking opium. It had to do with who was smoking opium, and that was the Chinese. And the Chinese had come to America and were, of course, seen as taking American jobs and a threat to the labor force.

And local politicians in California got together and said, well, wait a minute. We can't stop people because they're Chinese, at least you couldn't make that publicly palatable. What if we made illegal a form of behavior that is typical to the Chinese? You know, we've had a long history, chapter by chapter, in which drug laws in America have, with a varying range of intention, ended up de facto operating as racist instruments.

RAZ: I'm speaking with the award-winning documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki. His new film is called "The House I Live In," and it's about the war on drugs. I was struck by how many law enforcement officers you spoke to who expressed deep skepticism about the drug laws and about the things they had to do to enforce them, feeling almost as it was distracting them from doing real police work and taking on real crimes, violent crimes for example.

JARECKI: The one thing I could never have imagined would be that the most farsighted and deeply introspective critics of the drug war would be people on the inside. One of the characters in the film is this very, very hardened security chief named Mike Carpenter who runs a facility in Oklahoma.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HOUSE I LIVE IN")

MIKE CARPENTER: I am very much a law and order kind of guy.

JARECKI: And from the outside, you would think, this is like your prototype tough prison guard. But deep down, he actually has deep reservations about how the system does what it does and why.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HOUSE I LIVE IN")

CARPENTER: I think sometimes we have people doing a whole lot of time for not very much crime. It's almost like they're paying for our fear instead of paying for their crime.

JARECKI: The thing that happens is that politicians run on tough-on-crime rhetoric. You appeal to the public and say, let's put more money into taller fences, tougher laws, tougher sentencing, handcuffs, and where does that money come from? Well, immediately, it comes out of all the money needed for corrections. So somebody who's running a facility and wanting to make it a better place that's effective at, say, reducing recidivism sees that the political winds don't blow that way, that what happens is that politicians don't run smart on crime. They run tough on crime because it's in their short-term interest, and as Mike Carpenter taught me and others, it's ultimately in the short-term profit interest of a wide range of corporate and other actors who profit and benefit from the system being the way it does and not looking critically at itself.

RAZ: In one of your previous films, "Why We Fight," it suggests that what Eisenhower described as a military industrial complex, it was called the defense industry, in some ways, stands in the way of serious reform when it comes to the amount of money we spend on defense. And I wonder if it's the same with the industry that depends on drug laws. I mean, do they stand in the way of major reform?

JARECKI: Sure. I think they represent what Richard Lawrence Miller in the film refers to as bureaucratic thrust. The thrust that keeps a system from self reflecting and self correcting because, you know, if you were to decide that the drug laws are woefully misguided, that they have failed, that we have spent more than a trillion dollars on the drug war, it's led to 45 million arrests and yet we have not remotely curbed the sale or use of drugs and their purity and the youth of the people willing to sell and use them. If it's totally failed in its mission and you want the system to reflect on that and change course, well, think about all the people who will lose their livelihood.

And I don't think any of those people sit down at night rubbing their evil hands together, hey, I'm going to connive to keep a system going that preys upon my fellow man. They don't think that. They just think, I need to put food on the table. And until somebody tells me otherwise, this is the system we have. But if you talk to people, they're human beings. So if you ask just an extra question or two about their deeper thoughts, you find a great deal of empathy lurking beneath the surface. And I was inspired to find a great deal of desire to see a change.

RAZ: That's the documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki. He's the director of the new film, "The House I Live In." It's about the war on drugs. It's debuting at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend. If you want to see clips or learn more about the film, you can find that out at thehouseilivein.org. Eugene Jarecki, thank you so much.

JARECKI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.