In 2008, the night Barack Obama was elected President, Eugene Jarecki was watching the election coverage with his childhood maid, an African American woman who had lost her son to drug abuse. The conversation Jarecki had that night inspired him to start making this documentary about the war on drugs and how shockingly little the war has accomplished, and for the wrong reasons.
This is a fairly stock documentary in terms of its presentation. We see many different interviews with drug users living in ghettos, prison inmates, law enforcement officials, prison guards, and politicians to get their thoughts on the last 30 years of the war on drugs. All of this contributes to the film’s thesis, which seems to be that the war on drugs is largely ceremonial, targeting minorities and impoverished individuals to make politicians look good and fund private prisons which have become invaluable to countless small communities’ survival.
Now, I tend to really dislike documentaries that make an argument of any kind. Yes, it’s effective, and it gives you a lot to think about concerning your own misconceptions about these important issues, but I think it’s too easy for documentary filmmakers to show you what they want you to see. Focusing on the worst case scenarios and barraging the audience with narratives about people who have been mistreated by the system begins to feel like we’re only seeing one side of this issue, with hardly any counterargument provided, let alone debunked. Yes, it’s absurd that America has so many imprisoned citizens. Yes, the laws surrounding drug use seem to be targeted at minorities and poor people. Yes, all of this is infuriating in a modern society. However, I don’t see how reducing the number and severity of laws surrounding this issue is supposed to do anything to alleviate the problem. I’m not saying it can’t work, or that it won’t work, but the film is not doing enough to convince me of this. Again, this could be because the film lacks any sort of balance in its argument and it makes it difficult for me to take it seriously as a trustworthy piece.
That all being said, my favorite part of the movie is when it stays informative; giving the audience facts and historical context so that we can draw our own informed conclusions and actually feel empowered by the film rather than feeling like we’ve received a very long and condescending lecture. As long as the film is giving information about the historical and social impacts of the war on drugs, and credible reasons why choices were made to crack down on drug users, it goes a lot further toward convincing its audience that a problem exists. The argumentative parts then become unnecessary and tedious.
This gets into my other big problem with the film: that it is too long. Granted, the runtime is only 108 minutes, but every minute wasted arguing the shortcomings of the war on drugs, which gets quite repetitive over the course of the film, makes the film feel much longer.
Available now on DVD from Filmbuff.