Pubdate: Fri, 05 Oct 2012
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2012 The New York Times Company
Author: Manohla Dargis


'The House I Live In,' Directed by Eugene Jarecki

A call to national conscience, the activist documentary "The House I 
Live In" is persuasively urgent. Directed with heart by Eugene 
Jarecki, the movie is an insistently personal and political look at 
the war on drugs and its thousands of casualties, including those 
serving hard time for minor offenses. It is, Mr. Jarecki asserts - as 
he sifts through the data, weighs the evidence and checks in with 
those on both sides of the law - a war that has led to mass 
incarcerations characterized by profound racial disparities and that 
has created another front in the civil rights movement.

The title of the documentary isn't purely metaphoric. "The House I 
Live In" is, for starters, the name of a song written by Lewis Allan 
and the blacklisted Earl Robinson ("All races and religions/That's 
America to me"), that became a part of the Paul Robeson songbook. 
Frank Sinatra sang it in a 1945 short film of the same title that is 
a plea for tolerance written by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 
10. Mr. Jarecki uses the Robeson version over the final credits of 
the documentary, a nod to that singer's long history of civil rights 
activism. Touchingly, the song also serves as Mr. Jarecki's plaintive 
acknowledgment that his documentary was directly inspired by his 
lifelong relationship with an African-American woman who worked for 
his family, Nannie Jeter (her real name).

Ms. Jeter was, Mr. Jarecki says early, "like a second mother" to him 
when he was growing up. On its face and unexamined, that statement 
could be a perilous, risible gambit, but Mr. Jarecki navigates 
skillfully through the complexities of his relationship with Ms. 
Jeter, partly by immediately addressing his own privilege. She 
entered his life shortly after he was born, and their worlds 
overlapped as the decades passed.

"Our families were close, and her children and grandchildren were my 
playmates growing up," Mr. Jarecki says, his voice wafting over 
images of Ms. Jeter and her family closely watching television 
coverage of the 2008 presidential election. "But as we got older," 
Mr. Jarecki continues, "I saw many of them struggling with poverty, 
joblessness, crime and worse."

When he asked Ms. Jeter what she thought "had gone wrong," her answer 
- - drugs - surprised him. Whether Mr. Jarecki was as surprised as he 
states is immaterial to how he uses this relationship between a white 
man and his long-term black caretaker to build an argument about 
drugs in America and, more critically, about race and class. Nothing 
in the movie, including the data he amasses, the history he excavates 
and the miles he racks up during his investigation, is as striking as 
his decision to risk seeming naive or worse by making himself part of 
the story. Yet it is precisely his insistence that this is the house 
that he, too, lives in that helps distinguish this movie, investing 
it with resonant feeling.

It may be a war that Mr. Jarecki noticed almost by accident, but it's 
one he has seized on with characteristic vigor. As he showed in 
earlier documentaries like "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" and "Why 
We Fight" (about the military-industrial complex), Mr. Jarecki is 
fearless about taking on sprawling subjects that could eat up 10 
hours on cable and squeezing them into feature-length packages. The 
war on drugs, which officially stretches back to the Nixon 
administration, is the kind of large-scale topic that Mr. Jarecki 
loves digging into, and he does so here effectively, showing and 
telling with a wealth of rapidly shuffled visual material, including 
judiciously deployed family photographs and home movies, newsreels, 
television news reports and the archival like.

Working again with the film editor Paul Frost, Mr. Jarecki smoothly 
folds these images in with dizzying statistics and a cavalcade of 
talking-head interviews with a range of sympathetic experts, 
including Michelle Alexander, the author of "The New Jim Crow." He 
also checks in with a psychologist, as well as with historians, legal 
professionals, prisoner advocates and inmates. Among the most 
important collaborators he taps for explanatory duties is the 
journalist turned pop-culture god David Simon, the creator of "The 
Wire." Receiving what seems to be more screen time than any 
interviewee, Mr. Simon makes at once a fine, friendly narrative 
guide; a restrained voice of moral outrage; and, as the movie builds 
to its sweeping conclusions, a conspicuous stand-in for Mr. Jarecki.

Those conclusions won't surprise those who keep up on the war on 
drugs and debates over mass incarceration. But Mr. Jarecki isn't a 
journalist and doesn't pretend that he's breaking news; he is instead 
something of a showman (the choice of Mr. Simon as a voice of reason 
over a generic graybeard is savvy) as well as a great synthesizer and 
storyteller whose nonobjective investment in this material is one of 
his strengths.

It's easy to take issue with a documentary like "The House I Live 
In," which tackles too much in too brief a time and glosses over 
complexities, yet this is also a model of the ambitious, vitalizing 
activist work that exists to stir the sleeping to wake.

The House I Live In

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Eugene Jarecki; directors of photography, Sam 
Cullman and Derek Hallquist; edited by Paul Frost; music by Robert 
Miller; produced by Mr. Jarecki, Melinda Shopsin, Mr. Cullman and 
Christopher St. John; released by Abramorama. Running time: 1 hour 48 
minutes. This film is not rated.
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