The filmmaker unpacks The House I Live In, his documentary on America’s longest war—the war on drugs.
Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki
Tavis: Eugene Jarecki is an award-winning filmmaker whose previous projects include “Why We Fight” and “The Trials of Henry Kissinger.” His latest is called “The House I Live In” and, as I mentioned at the top of the show, the film received the Grand Jury Prize this year at Sundance. Here now some scenes from “The House I Live In.”
Tavis: Eugene, good to have you back on the program.
Eugene Jarecki: It’s great to be back.
Tavis: I want to jump to the film in a second, but first, though, since you’ve been in California for a while now working on a particular proposition which actually passed in California this week, so much talk about the presidential election, then the Senate elections and the House elections.
But in states across the country, increasingly these ballot measures are terribly important. Tell me about your work on Prop 36.
Jarecki: Prop 36 is an amazing moment for California and also for the nation. As you may know, California over the years has had the most draconian three-strikes law in America. Under California law, until Election Day, it was the case that you could get a third strike that would put you in jail for life even if the third strike was petty or nonviolent, like stealing a slice of pizza, stealing socks. These were famous cases of people who got life sentences.
So the California voters, God love them, they have decided – and it’s a major victory for the country that going forward it should not be the case – that a nonviolent or petty offense can put you in jail for the rest of your life.
So 68% of voters voted for Prop 36 which makes it so that, going forward, there are 3,500 people in California whose sentences will now be revisited, people who have life sentences where justice will be far improved. Also, thousands more coming down the pike who would have gotten life sentences for completely petty and nonviolent crimes now won’t.
This is both humane, but it also will save the state about $150 million dollars a year. So I want to see that message resonate across the country to other states that want to do the right thing and also save money.
Tavis: So what, to your mind, is happening with the California political psyche or in the water we drink, you tell me?
Tavis: What’s happening in California that allowed that to pass because, to your point, for so many years we’ve been draconian like a lot of other states in this whole notion of getting tough on crime? So what do you think is happening that’s allowing that door to even be opened?
Jarecki: I think it’s an indicator of a national trend, a national change. Look, we’ve had the drug war now for 40 years. We spent a trillion dollars, we’ve had 45 million drug arrests and what do we have to show for it? Drugs are cheaper than ever before, they’re purer than ever before. Younger and younger people are using them than ever before. So it’s been an abject failure on every count. Nobody wants to stand for the drug war anymore. The drug war has lost its credibility.
So, as such, when you start to see excessive sentencing across the country and also sentencing that’s costing the taxpayer a fortune, it becomes far more understandable to see a state like California who led the nation into draconian sentencing begin to lead us back toward the light, toward something far more decent, more about common sense and ultimately more about sort of practical government, practical solutions.
Tavis: Do you get the sense, though, that these moments are cyclical? At one point, we want to be, you know, ridiculously tough on crime? Even in schools, we pass zero tolerance policies, then we find out that kids are being criminalized at an early age for, again, fighting or chewing gum or truancy.
Jarecki: Right, or spitballs, yeah.
Tavis: Spitballs, stuff like that. I mean, tell me about your view at least of the ebb and flow of the way we deal with criminality in this country.
Jarecki: Well, I hope it’s an ebb and flow. I mean, if you ask poor folks in this country, they’ll tell you there’s a lot of ebb and not a lot of flow.
Tavis: A lot of ebb and no flow, yeah [laugh]. Fair enough.
Jarecki: So real questions. You know, I don’t want to give it too much credit. There are certainly some cycles and I do believe we’re at the sort of tipping point in one where the abject failure of the war on drugs is simply speaking volumes. We are the world’s largest jailer. We have 2.3 million people behind bars, more than any other country in the world.
So many of them are nonviolent and so many of them are put away as nonviolent people for sentences that often are longer than for violent crimes. You know, those people we talked about with that life sentence for stealing a pack of gum, someone down the hall from them murdered somebody and will be out in 10 or 12. These things don’t square with common sense.
You know, there is a moment now for a rethink and it’s partly because, you know, look at who’s turning against the drug war. We all know there have been long-distance fighters for justice on this like Cornel West, like Al Sharpton, like Russell Simmons.
You know, there have been people fighting a long time to say this is an unfair and inhumane treatment particularly of the Black community of America, and we can talk about that. But now they have common cause suddenly with Grover Norquist, with George Shultz, with Pat Robertson. Chris Christie weighed in against the drug war.
Why do they think it’s bad? They think it’s an over-bloated, absurd federal disgrace that has cost a fortune, tens of billions every year, and gets us where? It doesn’t achieve anything and all it does is erode our national population at a time when we need all the people we can get. We need all the creativity we can get. We need taxpayers.
Tavis: I’m not sure I’m arguing against this. You’ll take my point. But I do get troubled when it is often the case vis-à-vis our politics that individual policy makers will oftentimes or sometimes do the right thing for the wrong reason. So it’s not that they’ve come to appreciate, to respect and to revel in the humanity of these fellow citizens. It’s that it’s impacting my budget as governor of the state. What do you make of that reality?
Jarecki: I share your discomfort about this and I’ll give you a story. When I was making the film, one of the most amazing people I met is a woman named Julie Stewart who runs “Families Against Mandatory Minimums.” Mandatory minimum laws have done more to damage our criminal justice system than anything else in the American landscape and I urge people to look up FAMM, as it’s called.
But when I talked to Julie at one point, she talked about some victories that might be coming down the pike for economic reasons, that the drug war might get mitigated a bit because California has to release inmates because they can’t afford them anymore. They’re stacking them three high in gymnasiums. This state has to do it for economic reasons. I said, “Does it trouble you at all if these changes get made, right changes for the wrong reasons?” because this should be about the morality.
This should be about why are we engaging in man’s inhumanity to man. How did we become a gulag nation? Don’t you want that to be the driving force? If they just do it at the numbers level, I said to her, “That’s like a weed. You know, if you want to get rid of your weeds in your garden, all you do is hack them off; well, they’ll grow back in another form like Whack-A-Mole. Doesn’t that bother you?”
She looked at me in a very sweet way because she’s very experienced and I’m less experienced and she said to me, “In a way, it must be nice to fly at your altitude where you can have an academic theory like that.”
She said, “If you don’t mind, meanwhile, I’ve got 500 inmates that I’ve been working with for years and years and years who will get out because of these small developments, so I want them to get out. We can fight your academic battle about the theory and truth of it later.” Now is she right and I’m wrong? No. I think both positions are right.
Jarecki: We need to move forward in this by rethinking the morality and the humanity of it and I’m doing that in my small way by making a film where I want to say to people the drug war should be relegated to the ash heap of history. It was a disgraceful mistake in how we dealt with addiction. But at the same time, we also need small victories like we saw several of this week in the election.
Tavis: I want to go inside straight away into the film in just a second here. But since we’ve been talking, or at least referenced a couple of times, California politics – and I do believe that what happens in California prophesy their…
Jarecki: So goes the nation.
Tavis: Casts a long shadow or long sunbeam across the nation.
Jarecki: Whether it’s ebb or flow [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, absolutely. So California is under federal court order basically.
Tavis: Under federal government order to do something about the overcrowding in our prisons. To what extent is California and other states going to be forced to address this issue and not to just address it, but perhaps even to redress the issue on behalf of certain people because of just the basic notion of prison overcrowding?
Jarecki: Sure. Well, one of the things we’ve noticed is that in this election cycle people said where was the prison guard union in obstructing Prop 36? Why were they quieter this time around than in former times? I know that Mr. Jimenez who runs the prison guard union went through something of an awakening in recent years about the way overcrowding has an undertow.
Overcrowding is bad enough for the inmates, but if you look at California penitentiaries, they got so overcrowded that the gymnasium, where we all pictured the men working out their stresses and getting all that energy out of their system, they don’t use them as gyms anymore. They need bed space so much that they’ve packed these gyms three high with beds. There are scenes in my movie where it’s a sea of beds. It looks like a slave ship. It’s a terrible condition.
Now that’s bad enough for the people who live in it, but Mr. Jimenez was smart enough to recognize that that was a threat to his guards. You can’t have safety for your guards if those guards have to navigate a room full of a thousand men who represent they’re in a sort of unchecked situation. It’s not usual security practices, so you see the need absolutely to fix the situation like that that’s both inhumane and dysfunctional.
One of the problems, though, people need to watch California very closely. I mean, I leave here in a couple of days having really worked hard for a prop, but the issues continue here. You know, as they get rid of people from the larger prison system in this state, it’s not like those people are going to some desert island and having a daiquiri for the rest of their lives. They’re very often being shifted to county jails, places that, for example, don’t even have a gym, don’t have outdoor space, were not built for long-term residents.
So there’s a real kind of shell game that’s gone on a little bit that people need to be very wary of, of just how that prison liberation is happening, that freeing of people, because it may just be sort of out of one frying pan and into a fire.
Tavis: One last question real quick before I jump into, again, more of the film. The reason for it, which I’m fascinated by, this film came to be a connection to your own family, your immediate family, which we’ll come to in a moment.
Jarecki: Yes. I don’t look like the usual target of the drug war.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, but there is a connection to your family which we’ll talk about.
Tavis: I was literally on a plane early this week. I’d been in New York on Election Day doing election analysis for NBC and flew home after being in New York on Tuesday. I walk on the plane, I take my seat and it just so happens that seated next to me is the publisher of “The New Jim Crow.”
Jarecki: Michelle Alexander.
Tavis: The book by Michelle Alexander. So the publisher couldn’t wait to be introduced to me and I was happy to meet the publisher. We had a wonderful talk most of the plane ride about this issue. I said I’m going home to interview Eugene Jarecki.
We had a great talk on the plane ride, but I said to the publisher – which is why I raise this – I have been completely blown away in a positive way by the fact that a book called “The New Jim Crow” about our prison industrial complex is now 41 or 42 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list.
Jarecki: It’s astonishing, yeah.
Tavis: It’s astonishing that a book with that title, particularly, “The New Jim Crow.” Michelle Alexander, professor at the Ohio State University in Columbus, pushed this book out. They initially only printed 3,000 copies, as you know. Now they’re, what, a couple hundred thousand, I guess. But it caught on somewhere and it’s done remarkably well. What does that say to you about the timing for a real conversation about her book, about your film, about the issue?
Jarecki: Well, the time is now. I mean, I would love to say that Michelle Alexander’s success is due to the fact that she’s in my film, but I can’t because my film has just come out [laugh] and her book was a wild success before.
Tavis: You guys have done it together.
Jarecki: Yeah. If my film is successful, it’s probably owed to Michelle Alexander who is a real…
Tavis: Not to cut you off, though, it is fair to say – and I think Michelle would be the first to acknowledge this – it is fair to say that her book has succeeded because a whole bunch of other folk had been long-distance runners raising this issue before she wrote the text, but I digress.
Jarecki: And she brilliantly framed it in the book that really leaves no stone unturned in that argument and she does it from being a legal scholar and being an extraordinary sort of activist and public thinker. I think there are contributors like Michelle Alexander, like David Simon, Charles Ogletree, like William Julius Wilson, all of whom I brought into my film because I want to sort of make the definitive portrait right now of where we are in the overwhelming need to reform the drug war. I think I’m not alone in that.
If I’d made this film several years ago, those of us fighting for this issue were a lot more in the wilderness. It was much harder to get traction. But when you suddenly see people from the right and the left for reasons having to do with fiscal conservancy on the one hand or just basic humanism on the other, when you see that they’re all collapsing down onto this war on drugs and saying this is the primary human rights crisis we face in America, this is a thing which is a giant hole in the ground, I mean, I’ve been told, you know, you can’t stop this because the prison industrial complex is such a big business. It’s not a business. Don’t tell me it’s a business because it doesn’t add to the GDP.
All it does, like a casino, is redistribute wealth from poor people to more comfortable people. It’s not a business in that it makes a product. You can’t export the misery of an inmate. You can’t export his shattered family or broken community. So it’s not making anything and all it’s doing is throwing people and money into a hole in the ground where we don’t have to think about them again.
As David Simon says in the film, David Simon who created “The Wire” and is another remarkable national treasure like Michelle Alexander, he says in the film, “Look at it this way. We have sort of extra Americans in America who we don’t need anymore because we’ve closed so many factories and we’ve outsourced so many jobs.”
They’re increasingly not just African American. It’s widening and democratizing out into just poor people in general. As David Simon said, “Look, if this is how we’re gonna treat our poor people, we’re gonna lock them up and throw away the key and then profit off of their incarceration, why not just kill the poor? Why not just be blunt about it?”
It’s such a staggering moment in the film and I watch audiences absorb this deep wisdom and it’s full of so much love and so much heartbreak on David Simon’s part and I think it speaks for a national ethos which is changing and starting to see that there must be a better way to be the United States of America than to be the world’s largest incarcerator.
Tavis: This is politically incorrect, but it won’t be the first time or last time I’ve asked one of these questions on my show.
Tavis: I’m asking it of the right person. So you recall there was great debate for years about why Ronald Reagan as president wouldn’t say the word “AIDS.” There was great debate for years about why George Bush wouldn’t say the phrase, “climate change.”
Tavis: Can you ever imagine Barack Obama, now in a second term which everybody hopes and believes is going to free him up, whatever that means, can you ever imagine him saying the phrase as president, “the prison industrial complex”?
Jarecki: The way Eisenhower once said “military industrial complex” and heads turned and maybe some heads rolled? I do think so. I mean, I know, for example, that the film was made available to the president and I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, it becomes something now with more time on his hands not trying to fight off the Philistines of Washington where he has, I think, more power now.
I would love to see whether he and others around him could look at it and they could look more deeply at things like “The New Jim Crow” and try to take stock of what his legacy is going to be. Barack Obama’s first administration was a bit of a confusion for many of us who fight against the war on drugs.
When I first went to visit his drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, who has a wonderful record as a law enforcement thinker and expert, I went and spoke to him and he said, “Don’t call me a drug czar. That’s an old language we don’t agree with. I’m not a drug czar. That seems like it comes from the wrong mindset.” I thought, well, this is great.
We started talking and he said, “By the way, don’t call it a drug war. We don’t call it that because we don’t think it’s right to have a war against your own people. It’s an old mindset and we don’t agree with that.” I thought, wow, there’s a new sheriff in town and he’s a really decent sheriff. This is great.
The trouble is, in the years since, the Obama administration, and whether it’s because of them or whether it’s because of Washington, and I probably am inclined to think it’s more the latter, they ended up not being very effective and not being very committed to changing the war on drugs other than changing the language. Of course, my fear with that is, if you’re gonna conduct a war, don’t just do war by another name, right? Otherwise, please keep calling it a war so that I know what I’m fighting against.
So I’m troubled by the way the first term did not manifest serious and meaningful reform in this, but I’m hopeful that a new term with the right pressure and with the right sense from this week’s several victories in several states against the drug war that maybe Washington and maybe then also the Obama administration will get the message that the time has come and that this is really something that needs to become a thing of the past and a primary national discourse.
Tavis: So this project called “The House I Live In” really started in your own house, your immediate house.
Tavis: Tell me more.
Jarecki: Well, as I was growing up, you know, I’m a white Jewish American born to Holocaust parents. My father fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and my mother’s family had fled the czars of Russia before that. So the kids in my family as refugee Jew offspring, we all looked at ourselves as people who needed to understand that we represented struggle in Europe and that, as we would see struggle in America, we would want to identify ourselves with that struggle.
So African Americans became our natural brothers in struggle. It was natural to see the struggle for dignity for Black people in America as a sister struggle of the Jewish struggle. So growing up, it was always a part of my breakfast cereal to think of myself as someone who was part of a larger struggle. As I grew up, I had lots of friends in the African American community and lots of people close to my family. One, in particular, is in the film.
I watched as those young people that I was growing up alongside didn’t encounter the same possibilities that I did, the same opportunities. We all thought it was the wake of the civil rights movement. I grew up in the early 70s and I thought like anybody would have thought. It was in the air that, you know, it was gonna be a new time for Black people and that it would be a great time where the promise would finally be fulfilled.
Sure, today we have a Black president for the second time now and we have Black celebrities who have made an incredible contribution in this country. But for the masses of Black people, let’s not kid ourselves. The leading indicators in my lifetime, social, political and economic, have been harrowing.
So as I got older and I became a movie maker and committed as a political person to social justice, it was a matter of time before I was going to address just what went wrong and what is going wrong for Black America, and that’s where the roots of the film lie.
Tavis: The connection to your family specifically is what?
Jarecki: So one of the people in my life who meant a great deal to me, this is the classic moment where some pudgy white filmmaker says, well, it was my housekeeper. The fact is, there’s a woman in the film named Nannie Jeter. She’s not a nanny. Her name is Nannie. That was her birth name.
If I ever called her a nanny, she would have throttled me and I’d have to go sprawling across the floor until I got back to clutch her hem some more [laugh]. Nannie was an extraordinary person in my life and remains so. We’re incredibly close friends. She’s retired now and we just have a very deep, evolved love for each other.
As I got older, I watched Nannie become what she herself saw as the first generation of Black Americans that were better off than their children. It was a heartbreaking thing to watch because she had worked her whole life to advance her children and give them all the things she hadn’t had.
She was the first generation to see that that wasn’t working, that the forces that were being arrayed against her children and grandchildren were far more than she could ever overwhelm. In all her hard work for my family, to raise me well, to put my house in order, meant that her house was left out of order.
So to commute down the highway to be with my comfortable family and make my comfortable family advance had a cost. Over time is how that cost became clear to me through conversations with her where she would never fault me or spite me. We’re both victims of the same system. We’re both participants in a system that is designed that way.
Ultimately, “The House I Live In” was a movie about my coming to terms with the costs she had experienced in her life. Then I wanted to take that analysis, that word, to 25 other states in the country – she lives in Connecticut where I come from – to 25 other states in the country where I could look at how other families were being affected by that same war on drugs and by our system of mass incarceration.
Tavis: Does the film draw conclusions about what we ought to do about this so-called war on drugs?
Jarecki: Carefully and very, very gently because I find, when you make a movie about a problem, particularly a complex problem with deep roots, we have drug laws that go back in this country to the 1800s. I learned things about the roots of all this that were very eye-opening to me and I wanted to get that all across to people so they could come to their own judgment of the problem.
But when you spend a lot of time on the problem like that, very often there’s a tendency if you make a movie you want to be the guy who solves the problem. You want to have a movie called “The House I Live In,” Eugene figured it out. Everybody wants to make that movie.
But at the end of the day, I knew that will compromise the movie because what the movie needs to do is arm not just the audience, but groups of activists and hardworking, long-distance runners, as you said, all over the country who want to make change and they want to make serious change.
What they need is a movie that tells what’s wrong and then they can say, hi, everybody. I’m here tonight and I showed you this movie and I am Families Against Mandatory Minimums or I am Make the Road By Walking. I’m one group or another and I’m gonna tell you how we think we can solve it here in Chicago or here in L.A. or here in a small town.
I didn’t want to muscle those people out by me having my solution. I want them to be open for that kind of views.
Tavis: I’ve only got a minute to go. But just in the clips that the audience has seen tonight in this show about your film, “The House I Live In,” they’ve seen clips of almost every president in my lifetime, which obviously suggests to the viewers that every president at some point has “addressed” this issue.
Jarecki: Yeah. Very strangely, Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971 and yet we learned, and it’s in the film in a fascinating way, that Nixon, although he talked tough on crime, that’s not how he made his policies. Nixon spent two-thirds of his drug budget on treatment and only a third on interdiction and law enforcement and set a standard really for how I think we ought at minimum to think about this drug addiction as something that needs treatment, not toughness. But nonetheless we followed his example because he talked tough.
Tavis: So why have we gotten so far away from that reality, that it’s a health crisis first before it’s an issue of criminality?
Jarecki: Before starting with Nixon, successive presidents have followed that example, that talking tough on crime gets them elected and keeps them elected and so do our members of Congress, and our members of Congress are in particular corrupted by their unholy alliance with the corporations that profit from this.
So that full picture means there’s tremendous bureaucratic thrust toward treating it as criminality rather than recognizing that it’s a health matter that should be dealt with with compassion rather than draconian approaches.
Tavis: Well-received and indeed honored at Sundance. The project is called “The House I Live In,” the director is Eugene Jarecki. Eugene, good to have you on. Thanks for some great work.
Jarecki: It’s always a thrill to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: We’re delighted to have you back, friend. Thank you.
Jarecki: Thank you very much.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Until next time, keep the faith.
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