Eugene Jarecki offers up an impassioned, journalistic and often startling exploration into the racial bias of American drug laws.
Aptly named African-American mother-of-three Nannie Jeter was employed as a nanny by the Jarecki clan, even relocating with them to New York. But while her maternal love was being sapped by the Jarecki kids, her own offspring were being lured into a world of drugs and violence.
Eugene Jarecki’s startling investigative documentary takes these simple events as a springboard to perform a kind of ad-hoc intellectual autopsy on the rotting cadaver of American society. His central target is the severely lop-sided US criminal justice system, which serves draconian punishments to those who have any connection whatsoever to illegal drugs.
There are stories of people being fired from long-term jobs turning to crystal meth production or crack dealing as a way to maintain economic stability – though when they are caught, they are given life sentences in prison with no hope of parole.
Why does drug possession carry such harsh penalties? According to Jarecki it all boils down to party politics. In his bid to secure a second term, Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, even though many commentators claim that he didn’t truly believe it was a war worth fighting. But the promise of expunging drugs from society turned out to be electoral gold. In turn, this reactionary mantra was picked up by the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations.
Jarecki’s thesis is that the modern American justice system is perpetrating a self-engineered holocaust that is essentially exterminating an entire class and race of people. It’s weighted favourably towards the rich, white and middle class (whose typical drug of choice is the less hysteria-inducing cocaine), leaving poor, black and disenfranchised crack-users to suffer behind bars for their tragic vice.
However, Jarecki by no means sets his film up as a rallying cry for the underclass: he also looks into the workings of local police forces and how they are structured to financially favour the quick (drugs) bust rather than the protracted, meticulous murder investigation.
While Jarecki goes off on the occasional wild tangent, his film is both absorbing and surprising even if, cinematically speaking, it’s not really pushing the envelope. David Simon, the lauded Maryland-based writer and journalist behind The Wire, crops up as one of the talking heads, this subject being his forte.
The film’s most interesting and provocative discourse, however, comes from Richard Lawrence Miller, an Abraham Lincoln scholar (and look-a-like), who not only possesses detailed knowledge of early American drug laws, but has an incredibly sage and analytical take on how initiatives from the past are directly leading to problems of the future.
Eugene Jarecki has form in the sprawling political doc arena.
Kinda all over the place, but always absorbing.
Jarecki offers 100 small conclusions rather than one big one for you to take away.