Film Review: The House I Live In

My best friend is a death penalty attorney in Colorado. That means that the federal government pays her to provide criminal defense services to human beings who are on death row. In turn, she works to prevent the federal government from killing her client. It doesn’t make very much sense, but that is what she does for a living. I will call one of her clients Sly. When Sly heard his attorney talk about her closest friends, he crocheted a pair of fingerless gloves for each of us. After receiving my simple thank you note, he made a scarf to match my gloves. If he is lucky, Sly will spend the next several decades in a maximum security federal prison. Shame, guilt, and responsibility are things I am still trying to figure out. And it is never helpful to oversimplify. But when I look at my scarf and gloves, I wonder if Sly and so many other people in prison do not deserve to be behind bars.

The House I Live In, a documentary film that draws from the work of Michelle Alexander and David Simon, validates my suspicions. Though slated for an Oscar nomination, the film did not make the final cut. That unfortunate fact makes it no less powerful. Through a series of conversations with experts in the field, unfolding in the context of commanding images, the film tells us that something is seriously wrong with this nation’s criminal justice system. And this war on drugs we have heard about all our lives? Well, it turns out it has no battlefield.

In 1944, Raphael Lempkin coined the word genocide to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of European Jews. Frustrated by the international community’s indifference to concentration camps and moved by Szmul Zygielbojm‘s decision to commit suicide in protest of Allied force’s indifference to the Holocaust, Lempkin struggled to describe what he knew to be true. In the end, he blended the Greek derivative geno (meaning “race” or “tribe”) with cide (a derivative of Latin’s word for “killing”). The concept of genocide was born.

The House I Live In does not give us a new word. But it does present a new way of thinking about an old problem. Michelle Alexander, civil rights leader, law professor, and author of The New Jim Crow, describes it well:

History reveals that the seeds of the new system of control were planted well before the end of the Civil Rights Movement. A new race-neutral language was developed for appealing to old racist sentiments, a language accompanied by a political movement that succeeded in putting the vast majority of blacks back in their place. Proponents of racial hierarchy found they could install a new racial caste system without violating the law or the new limits of acceptable political discourse, by demanding ‘law and order’ rather than ‘segregation forever.’

We are still talking about a racial caste system. Through the film, we realize that we are also talking about an economic system that depends on the existence of an underclass. This uncomfortable reality conjures guilt. Thankfully, director Eugene Jarecki reassures us that The House I Live In is not a story about shame, but a story about family and responsibility. With great privilege, he reminds us, comes great responsibility. We have been here before.

The film’s brilliance is in its positive approach. Everyone is implicated, but no one is villainized. It validates the devastation that we as a family—a national and global family—have had to endure at the hand of our collective addictions. And speaking of addiction, it suggests that drug addiction is not our most debilitating dependency. What would that be? You can decide for yourself, but I observe that our insatiable public and private appetite for wealth is a very serious addiction.

The film shows two sides of the same coin. Drug enforcement authorities have come to believe that entire communities of people are corrupt. The people in those communities believe authorities are using money and power to destroy their communities. That is why it is a film about family. Different people living under the same roof are speaking different languages. So they have a hard time communicating. And when we have a hard time communicating, we have a hard time getting along. And when we have a hard time getting along, we fight. The roots of our humanity wither.

These days the air is filled with smoky clouds of political debate over what interest most deserves our collective attention and our tax dollars. Criminal justice reform. Labor rights. Simplification of the tax code. Education of our children. The mass criminalization of working people seems as good a place as any to start a conversation about what is happening on the ground. Rather than an isolated entity, the mass criminalization of working people turns out to be a system composed of many moving parts. Snake oil salesmen lurk between the community and the authorities. A thoughtful woman named Nanny Jeter plays an important role in the film. Jarecki’s parents employed Jeter to care for him and his siblings so they could work. The film came alive when Jarecki realized that he and his siblings had fared quite well in life and in objective ways, much better than Jeter’s children did. For example, her son died too young of HIV contracted from an infected needle. It is unclear who cared for Jeter’s children while she worked herself.

This is not a new story. Those with money have access to a fine education and the privilege that comes with it. Those without money work to support the enterprises that make this whole capitalism project turn. Poor people are imprisoned. Mark Twain observed that “our Civil War was a blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls.” Alexander and Simon and everyone else who worked on this film, including the people interviewed, the writers, and the film crew, remind us that though we have made progress, we have a long way to go toward the realization of democracy. Experts by experience, its subjects offer constructive criticism and thoughtful, specific suggestions about how to improve the situation. This film depicts an actual slice of actual reality. I have never been poor, and I have no expertise in the area of mass incarceration. That is why I am grateful that this film provides a forum for these experts to share their observations.

In a way that some other compelling social issues don’t, the mass incarceration of working people hits home. In my mind, and maybe in yours, it is a local system gone absolutely and unequivocally mad. With each passing day, that system robs my family, my community and my children, should I choose to have them, of important perspective and brilliant minds. That is unfair. I learned a lot of things during my childhood, and injustice wasn’t one of them. This film is a lesson about injustice. As I listened to the film’s main characters, I began to think that maybe we have been here before. Maybe we never left. That thought terrifies and inspires me in the very same breath.


  1. daniellesmith says

    Beautifully written and incredibly eye-opening, I’m both mystified and inspired after reading this.