Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary about the failure of the drug wars by any standard — economic, practical, moral — is a powerful and sobering call for treating drug abuse as a public health problem and not a criminal problem. I spoke to him about the film, his decision to include a very personal story, and what he has learned about programs that are more effective in addressing the problems caused by drugs.
You begin with a home movie about your own family and bring in a very personal story of drug abuse in a family close to you, unusual choices for a documentary about an important public policy issue. Why did you do that?
You ask yourself at a certain point when you’re making a film of this kind whether and how to be most honest about the role that you are playing as a pursuer of this information in these stories. Sometimes staying very much out of the way has its place, particularly in a movie like this where there are so many characters and there’s so much to tell. It seems like a clumsy vanity that I would be in the movie at all. I would have thought, “What business do I have being in this movie when the people who really need to occupy screen-time are the people whose the stories will appear in the film, who have so much to say about this broken system, whose lives are such a testament to its carnivorous behavior?” So what role do I have? And then at the end of the day, I played that game for a long time, but I was making a movie where it was very hard to understand what was the modus operandi of the filmmaker, because these stories were chosen in 20 or 25 states; they were all over the place at all levels of the war on drugs. When we would do early screenings for our friends and in the editing room it felt a little bit like there is a driving force in this film that is inside Eugene’s feelings about the country he lives in that is somehow missing here—and how do you inject a little bit of that without getting in the way at all? And so it meant the occasional glimpse of me as a pursuer of this national story, of trying to unravel this national mystery as well, was at least a role I could play. But to have me in there at all, of course, that brought up the fact that I had a deep, intimate, personal relationship with one of the stories I had been telling. In my early cuts in the film that early on, Nannie Jetter appears in this film just as a character, with no mention of the fact that I had an intimate reason for being interested in her. So that changed.
As a filmmaker, I’d like you to talk a little bit about the sometimes glamorous images that we see of the drug world in films, mostly fiction from feature films like “Scarface” and “American Gangster,” but also television shows.
Don’t lump “American Gangster” in with other movies that have been made about the drug war in America because American Gangster is already a post-modern take the drug war in that it is a movie that understands what my movie understands. It’s a movie made from a very critical perspective, where Steve Zaillian’s script really examines the war on drugs and the hypocrisy and the humanity of it all with a lot of wisdom, I was very impressed by “American Gangster,” particularly for a Hollywood movie. It’s hard to get good substance through Hollywood. Hollywood is a town driven by fear and by economics and the people in it, unfortunately whatever their inner politics are, they tend to make movies that portray images that are serviceable to some exploitative vision of industrialized film-making. So you end up seeing over and over dehumanization in the service of making a big box office, and the movies tend to exploit that in us which is our least and our worst rather than looking for that in us which is majestic and human. And so what I can do if I have my little camera and my little team and the idea of a movie, is to be an antidote to that, and to try and portray majesty in the human condition. That includes the majesty of a survivor like Nannie Jetter who survives slings and arrows I couldn’t imagine, or the majesty of a security chief in a prison who finds a way from his position of power to nonetheless risk his own job in talking to me and being so candid, to people up and down the chain of command who, in one way or another, demonstrate tremendous personal reserves. That’s the best antidote I can give to the dehumanized, cartoonish portraits that the industrial system produces.
You’re quite right about the conclusion of “American Gangster,” but it does perpetuate this notion of the kind of glamorous, killing machine that is at the root of drugs and I think is often part of the popular perception.
Yeah, but it does that in the middle of an argument that the U.S. government aided and abetted the injection of drugs into the inner cities. This is an extraordinarily dark aspect of the American story, one so dark I was probably too cowardly to go into it in my movie, and yet that movie, for all of its other Hollywood tropes, notwithstanding that, went into some very intense territory there. And I don’t think portrays Frank Lucas as a hero. I think it portrays Frank Lucas as a human, and as such, he does some stuff which looks and feels like a movie because there’s killing and there’s cut-throatedness, but he also is a human being trapped inside a cycle of ongoing degradation and despair in the African American community. So for him to want to get his, but he does so at the expense of his own people. That is the bitter irony of that character and it is a super-sensitive movie to have understood that. Look, Hollywood is what it is, it needs to sell some tickets, they’re going to do certain things that are conceits that are time-proven, and I don’t want them to do that. But if you gave me the choice to not have a movie or have a rather substantive movie like “American Gangster” that’s going to have just enough of those to get over and get some box-office, I’ll probably choose the second because this needs to be more talked about, not less, and I’ll lose my religion over some of those details.
You have mentioned Portugal as a good counter-example to the US approach of criminalization. Tell me a little bit about what they do well.
They pursued wholesale decriminalization, and you can Google the statistics online. The statistics of success in Portugal, in the early phases but relatively substantive phases of their process, are exemplary. And they speak to the possibility, they speak to what all of us would know to be the case, I mean, we’ve learned in New York City for example, that one of the primary determining factors of why New York City has a reduced crime rate over what it had in the past is that New York State is one of the only states in the country that has actually reduced its prison population. We know in this country statistically from criminology that the prison is criminogenic, that prisons create more crime. So this mass incarceration system creates a spiral towards increased crime and increased incarceration, and when you reduce it, you defuse that spiral, you de-energize that spiral and so when you see other countries in the world that, from a starting point, don’t have our commitment to mass-incarceration and from a starting point do not have industrialized systems of mass-incarceration like ours, you already see that they don’t have that kind of explosive tragedy unfolding and that means their spiral is not getting worse and worse all the time as ours is.
You touch on some very important stuff in the movie, the follow-the-money incentives, like federal programs now that reward local jurisdictions based on the number of drug arrests that they make.
Michelle Alexander talks about them in her book, The New Jim Crow, and she talked to me quite a lot in our interview with her, that stuff was a little bit in the weeds, it’s so specific. But yes, the grant programs that reward police departments for increased drug arrests create a climate of incentivized, low-level law enforcement harassment, so it should be no wonder, for example, that in New York City, we have several hundred thousand stops a year, 350,000 of them become frisks. Of these, 90% of these people are young blacks and Latinos. Of those 350,000 frisks a year, only 10% lead to an arrest. So 90% are just harassment. This is a grotesque system. So once you know that that’s at work, this has to be stopped.
Are there any politicians who are on-front in this issue or are they all terrified?
Congressman Bobby Scott is an exemplar on the matter of the drug war. Senator Jim Webb, who could not get sufficient support for his omnibus crime bill, but should, and should be given support for the setting up of a blue-ribbon commission to study our criminal justice system and overhaul it. Cory Booker’s one of the leading voices against the drug war in the nation and from his mayorship in Newark. And there are others across the country in their small ways, here and there, who matter deeply and who’ve gone up against the country’s drug policies. And the occasional judge will do that, and the occasional public figure will do that, but of course, it’s far too few. The real headline is, it’s far too few.
What do you think the fascination is with shows like “Weeds” and “Breaking Bad” in glamorizing small-time drug-dealers?
I think people are fascinated by drugs in America. We’re one of the most addicted countries in the world for a lot of reasons. I think drugs are a place that despairing people find solace in and escape, I think there’s an increasing level of despair in this country over a sense of existential meaninglessness. The point of being a country has been undermined by capitalism in this country.