One of the most fantastic things I’ve ever witnessed in the process of filmmaking was documentarian Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) pitching a project about racism and economic segregation in America to potential funders at the Toronto Documentary Forum at Hot Docs in 2007. The title: “Ghetto.” The pitch was incendiary. My cheeks flushed, my ears hummed. This was an improbable task: this yet-to-be-financed project would be one of the great documentaries, a grand, combustible polemic that could change lives, could change politics, government, lives…. The treatment’s synopsis read, “Whatever its original intent, has the war on drugs become a de facto form of systemic racial persecution in its disproportionate impact on Black Americans? Using the five phases common to history’s major genocides, ‘Ghetto’ will examine the American war on drugs, seeking to lay bare its mechanics, motivations, contradictions and social implications.” (The five phases were identified as “identification,” “isolation,” “confiscations,” “concentration” and “annihilation.”) Watching the clip reel, then the presentation by Jarecki and production partner Nick Fraser of BBC’s “Storyville” documentary series, I could only think, who in America would dare show this film, let alone invest in it at this germinal stage? Couple years pass. Sundance 2012: “The House I Live In” found a new title and a personal way in, with twenty years of consideration by Jarecki and his fact-finding tour of twenty states, but also the effects over the years on the extended family of Nannie Jeter, an African-American woman and his family’s longtime caretaker whom his privileged family has known for years. “The House I Live In” is gentler in many ways, often suggestive on topics that it never fully demonstrates, but jam-packed and filled with strands that could be explored in greater depth, or, as journalist-turned-dramatist David Simon (“The Wire”) tells Jarecki on-camera, “The drug war is a Holocaust in slow-motion.” There’s likely no way that the pitch of “Ghetto” could have come to pass, especially at feature length, and it’s intriguing to reflect on how nonfiction films are shaped by discoveries, reflection and editorial choices across the multiple years it takes to shape them. The uncommonly vigorous and bristling “The House I Live In” still demonstrates obstinate, preposterous truths about our justice system, such as the impoverished communities subsist on jobs from prisons which then must be filled, and the for-profit corporations that follow, including phone companies that vastly overcharge the incarcerated and their poor relatives, and which, of course, a cut is skimmed by the keepers of the poky. And local politicians wouldn’t want that to go away. But, as an ancillary benefit, the ever-lucid Jarecki will be talking about “The House I Live In” and his way with words may do even more good, if only to strike a moment’s contemplation in the national conscience. Just because a subject’s complex is no reason not to tackle it with all one’s focus: otherwise, Jarecki suggests, America becomes more and more ghetto and less and less a still-young, thoughtful, hopeful, democratic project of idealism. 108m. (Ray Pride)
“The House I Live In” opens Friday at Siskel. A trailer and a clip from the film are below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.