'House I Live In' explores war on drugs and its toll on America ★★★

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'The House I live In'

'The House I live In' (October 11, 2012)

Taking on a hellacious societal problem, a documentary filmmaker benefits from finding a narrow path leading to the heart of that problem — a specific angle, an image, a detail, that opens up to the wider world and a host of provocations.

Eugene Jarecki, whose previous works include the documentary "Why We Fight," has done so in his latest film, "The House I Live In," now in a week's run at the Siskel Film Center. This rich and sobering account of America's drug war, and why so many waging it find it hopeless in its mission and ugly in its ramifications, sounds dangerously indulgent in its first-person premise. Growing up, the white filmmaker's family's au pair was a woman named Nannie Jeter, an African-American who came north to escape the tyranny of Jim Crow laws. Once the Jareckis moved, Jeter received double her former pay to compensate for all her travel time. But she lost control of her kids, and her son died of AIDS-related complications, she says on camera, brought on by needle-sharing and a heroin addiction.

"The House I Live In" proceeds from this introduction to Jeter, and Jarecki's voice-over narration, to cover an impressive range of subjects and no-win scenarios on both sides of the law. Forty-five million drug-related arrests in the U.S. have been made since then-President Richard Nixon initiated the so-called war on drugs. The cost of this has been estimated at $1 trillion. "We are the jailing-est country on the planet," says David Simon, former reporter and creator of the revered HBO series "The Wire." To what end?

Jarecki offers this fact, reeking of injustice: African-Americans make up 13 percent of the nation and 14 percent of American drug users, yet they constitute 37 percent of the drug-related arrests made in the U.S. and more than half of those imprisoned on drug-related charges. These figures stoke all sorts of outrage among many interviewed by Jarecki. The filmmaker turns his camera to law enforcement officials in Oklahoma, New Mexico and elsewhere. In Yonkers, N.Y., Shanequa Benitez talks about life in the projects and lousy economic options therein. In Sioux City, Iowa, judge Mark Bennett addresses the glaring discrepancy between crack cocaine possession laws and powder cocaine laws. One prisoner, a victim of the harsh mandatory sentencing laws on the books, is doing time for possessing 3 ounces of methamphetamine. His fate: life, without parole. Is this fair?

"The House I Live In" argues that we're living with nothing less than a systematic destruction of a people. When the film makes explicit its parallel to Hitler's slaughter of the Jews in the Holocaust, there's a sense of overreaching. The final half-hour seems nervous about its own implications, as well as rushed and overcrowded in its sourcing and interviews. But there's a lot of very, very strong stuff here, and the subject — largely because the filmmaker has found ways to make it personal, without making it about himself — is a monster that isn't going away under our current strategy.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The House I Live In' -- 3 stars

No MPAA rating (language)

Running time: 1:48

Opens: Friday (through Oct. 18) at the Siskel Film Center

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