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If you want to understand a part of America watch this: The House I Live In

Would you believe me if I told you that a critically-acclaimed movie with Brad Pitt, Russell Simmons, John Legend, and Danny Glover could not muster more than 50 people on a Saturday night in a movie theater in Hollywood?

That is exactly what happened this past Saturday when I went to watch Sundance award-winning The House I Live In.

Before I get into the content of this movie, I want to highlight all the hurdles to me actually watching it:

  • It is not advertised on any of the TV I've watched or the radio I listen to; I ran across the movie after a re-tweet from someone in my Twitter network who re-tweeted Danny Glover.
  • It is available for viewing only at ONE theater as of this writing; the tourist-heavy, but not-very crowded Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
  • The ticket is relatively expensive ($16).

I suppose these developments are not anything new with social documentaries. With considerable star power producing the film, however, I would have expected more attention to be hoisted upon it.

Instead, at the moment, the concern in both local traditional and social media is about the Los Angeles Lakers hiring Mike D'Antoni over Phil Jackson to be the head coach of the beast of a basketball team and the 18-year old Justin Bieber calling it quits with now ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez.

Go ahead and pursue those stories to your hearts' desire. I'm not one to tell people what they should or shouldn't be watching or pursuing.

But, I wonder why more folk can't be as passionate when learning about difficult realities that people face. I wonder why people shy away from engaging in issues that might directly impact us.

This past election season saw the legalization of marijuana for those over the age of 21 in the state of Washington and Colorado. In California, a majority voted "Yes" on Proposition 36 to reform the three strikes law. Each of these passages of law represent major markers of accomplishment against the US government's "war on drugs." The "war on drugs" was a catch phrase coined by former President Richard Nixon in 1971 for a number of policies first enacted in 1972 designed to aggressively stop production, distribution, and consumption of drugs.

The House I Live In is one of the easiest ways to learn about this complex story and evolution of the 40-year old "war on drugs" in the United States, particularly along the east coast.

You will see the effects of this policy on everyday life.

When I think of the war on drugs, I think of "costs" and "tolls." "Costs" are just the money it takes to do something. As written in the New York Times and re-shouted out by Libertarian think tank Reason Magazine, the costs are very large and therefore very expensive. Very expensive is $20-25 billion dollars per year while addiction levels have remained the same. The movie states that over $1 trillion dollars has been spent while 45 million have been jailed.

"Tolls" are the extent of loss or damage as the result of an action.

This movie makes you see not just the cost, but the toll the war on drugs has taken on families, black and white. You will see the toll the war on drugs has taken on the quality of law enforcement. Despite all the negative tolls it has taken, you will see how industries are built on keeping the status quo. In one scene, we were briefly taken to a town in Oklahoma whose economy was dependent upon the existence of a prison.

If there was one thing the movie missed on, I wish director Eugene Jarecki would have touched on the incarceration in California, involvement of Latinos and Latino Americans, and drug wars here in California, even as case examples.

At the very least after watching this movie, you should come out of the theater a little more informed and perhaps even ready to talk about it on your local message board.

The movie made many points that should be "conversation-starters":

  • The movie reveals that drug laws have a history of racist intent behind them and were used to remove those groups deemed threatening. According to an Abraham Lincoln historian, drug laws were used against Chinese opium users in California to stop them from getting jobs. Later, Mexicans were targeted for using marijuana. Then with the migration of blacks to Northern urban areas, they became targets for using cocaine. Studies have shown there to be drug users at roughly the same range of percentages for all colors, classes, and orientation. Scholar Michelle Alexander appeared in the movie and argued that the drug war has created a new racial caste system in America.
  • The movie made a case for the destructiveness of "mandatory minimum sentencing." Mandatory minimums are the minimum amount of time an offender must serve as a result of involvement in the drug trade. Mandatory minimums are cited as one of the factors escalating the growth of prisons and the "prison industry" in the United States. In California, the three strikes law implemented in 1994 is considered a mandatory minimum law, and through the passage of Proposition 36 in this past election cycle, those convicted of nonviolent third offenses now have the opportunity to apply for something less than life sentences.
  • The movie highlights the discrepancy between the sentencing for possession of cocaine and the possession of the powdered crack cocaine. The majority of those convicted of cocaine are white Americans while those with powdered crack cocaine are black Americans. While both equally deadly, there was a major discrepancy in the sentences each faced: someone caught with one gram of crack cocaine would be sentenced similarly to someone caught with 100 grams of cocaine. In 2010, President Obama signed into law that would reduce the mandatory sentencing of crack cocaine, but those with crack cocaine still face the stiffer penalty.

This movie is just one piece in what should be a continuing conversation between concerned citizens, community members, government officials, their justice systems.

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