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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
That's America to Me
by Donald Levit

Director/writer/co-producer/narrator Eugene Jarecki brings impressive credentials to the table, the nine A-list co-executive producers include the super-famous, and its most ubiquitous talking head created The Wire. Unabashedly liberal The House I Live In, however, says things about us that we don’t want to hear and thus is less media blazoned than 56 Up, Michael Apted’s most recent half-century septennial serial documentary. Both concern class and discrimination, which the Brits more readily fess up to. And both come down on the side of nurture as against nature, environment trumping genetics.

The Englishman’s narrational voice is less obtrusive, and--granted, over several films--the now-grown up conservatives are treated as evenhandedly as are their left-leaning countrymen. One-shot and slanted, HILI originated in talks with Nanny Jeter, the African-American nanny-cook-maid for the Jewish-American filmmaker-author’s parents and his own “second mother” from his birth and whose family was his “second family.” At first sight, the 1960s-‘70s Civil Rights Movement appeared to have cemented and sanctified this particular lifelong bond throughout American society.

But while the Jareckis moved socially upward and geographically closer to New York, the nation’s Jeters remained locked in its New Haven ghettos, ever more rigidly demarcated, riven by violence and fear in the grip of cocaine, heroin and then crack cocaine and the spiral of unemployment, broken families, hopelessness and incarceration.

This Sundance Grand Jury Documentary Prize-winner passed somewhat unnoticed across commercial screens but is now packing in appreciative Harlem audiences at Maysles Cinema. That itself encapsulates the problem with advocacy non-fictions, as most all of the current crop are, in that they attract the already sympathetic but rarely convince those of the other side who bother to see the films.

In the course of conversation Nanny reveals the loss of her son James to drugs and, on a trip back to her Crewe, Virginia, birthplace, the hopes that drove her, and hundreds of thousands of other blacks, north, where urban factory work was once plentiful but actual living conditions arguably worse.

Following a hundred-eight minutes of distressing statistics, sad stories, and interviews, the film closes with soupy music over a tearing-up Nanny watching President Obama on TV. The case built up throughout centers not so much on drugs per se -- a symptom -- as on the causal conditions that lead to addiction and trafficking and most especially on the means this country has taken to confront -- not solve -- the crisis.

In archival footage the forty-year War on Drugs is traced, with only brief Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter getting a pass among leaders and their wives. The film crew travels to twenty states, big cities and blink-and-you-miss-them hamlets, patrol cars and roadblocks, judges’ chambers and courtrooms, holding cells and the Big House and halls of academe.

The industry supporting the penal system has sprouted to mammoth proportions, the primary life-support employer in numbers of communities. The legal system that feeds the industry has willingly gone along with, or been hamstrung by, unreasonable laws passed by politicians anxious to woo constituents’ votes by securing such jobs and being tough on non-violent drug criminals. And law enforcement officials have been subverted from their true purpose and in the process lost any connection with, and respect from, minority communities.

As meth-amphetamines became the substance of abuse du jour and relatively poor but white drug users and/or sellers swelled the ranks of those arrested, so did calls for reform increase in volume. The argument that old-mindset remedies have patently failed and that new, enlightened approaches are needed but nowhere near being adopted, is most cogently advanced by litigator-author Michelle Alexander and David Simon, his face cropped off top and bottom in close-up.

It is the insiders, the prisoners themselves, however, who are most cinema-eloquent, along with a surprising Iowa U.S District Court judge and an Oklahoma corrections center security chief. Less convincing are lessons supposedly learned about patterns for isolating, demonizing and finally eliminating “alien” groups. Though the Holocaust was ignored for too long, parallels drawn with that and other genocides may strike some as a stretch, even if there is no denying that our current system is indeed broken.

(Released by Abramorama Entertainment; not rated by MPAA.)

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