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Of Plagues and Prisons: Two Films Everyone Should See

Films depicting the drug war and AIDS crisis may surprise progressives and should be required viewing.

Inmates in the film The House I Live In. (Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist)

There are two documentary films on limited release right now that, by rights, should be mandatory viewing for every human being in the United States old enough to comprehend them.

David France’s How to Survive a Plague and Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In are both movies that address fundamentally important issues left out of both the official historical narrative and our contemporary political discourse. It is either ironic or bitterly appropriate that the two films were first released in the period immediately before the US presidential election, a time when the political conversations being played out in the national media are usually at their lowest level.

A Nation of Drug Warriors

Not that they get much coverage at the best of times, but you can add mass incarceration and the war on drugs (the interconnected subjects of The House I Live In) to the US drone strikes program, climate change and any other urgent, hugely important issue that was either left out of the presidential debates and campaigns or had its worst aspects actively celebrated.

This is hardly surprising: Jarecki makes it very, very clear that support for the drug war – not just perpetuating it, but constantly ratcheting it up and thus imprisoning ever more socially and economically disadvantaged Americans – is horribly bipartisan. Some of the politicians we see in archive footage, sternly denouncing drugs and espousing harsh policies that have devastated communities, are still leading lights of the Democratic party, like Joe Biden, and both Hillary and Bill Clinton. And their support for these policies seems to give few progressives pause.

Also See: The People Vs. the War on Drugs: Filmmaker Tackles the “Predatory Monster”

This is partly because, as The House I Live In shows, we have allowed the stereotypes and narrative of drug war propaganda to permeate and become embedded within our world view. Reefer Madness scare stories and opium den caricatures from historical archives seem laughable to us now, so clearly fact-free in their scaremongering that their naked racism hardly seems sinister. But as Jarecki illustrates, with each new drug come the same scare stories, and the more recent they are, the more plausible they seem: from the super-strength granted by crack and PCP to the face-eating user of “bath salts.”

Moreover, each new drug scare is associated with, and becomes justification for, policies that disproportionately impact a specific racial group politically useful to repress: from Chinese Americans on the West Coast in the 19th century (opium) to African-American communities in the 1980s (crack). Jarecki does not discount the seriousness of the effects of drug addiction; rather, his film shows how the specter of drugs’ effects on society has been deployed in racist, discriminatory and politically manipulative ways.

For an example of this mythology’s deleterious impact on our political discourse, we need look no further than the second televised presidential debate. Asked about his record on immigration, Barack Obama reassured viewers that the undocumented immigrants his administration has focused on deporting have been “gangbangers.” In the first place, this is simply a lie – one unsurprisingly missed by many progressives who rushed to fact-check only Mitt Romney’s half of the debate, but not by Adam Serwer at Mother Jones or Julianne Hing at Colorlines, who reported that “the vast majority of undocumented immigrants who have been deported during Obama’s tenure do not have violent criminal records.”

But moving away from policy facts and on to the level preferred by most pundits when discussing the presidential debates, that of “narrative” and “framing” – what was Obama aiming to achieve with the “gangbangers” line? Progressives who would be appalled by overt racism are still susceptible to the coded language that says that the demonized racial group of the day does contain a terrifying subgroup from whom we must be protected. Drug users and distributors are still a reliable “enemy within” from whom politicians seeking office promise to protect the American people just as fiercely as they will protect them from “terrorists.”

Obama’s rhetoric thus achieves the same thing Richard Nixon achieved when he launched the modern war on drugs: It wins votes by scaring the public and painting himself as their guardian. Somewhat ironically, however, while in public Nixon pioneered the tough rhetoric still used today, his administration devoted two-thirds of its antidrug budget to treatment programs – almost the exact reverse of Barack Obama, whose rhetoric has promised much but whose National Drug Control Budget for fiscal year 2013 devotes just over 40 percent of a requested $25.6 billion to treatment and prevention.

Jarecki’s film is clear-eyed when it comes to the realities of drug addiction: The film takes as its starting point the drug-related death of the son of his family’s former housekeeper, Nanny Jeter. But in tracing the causes and impacts of drug abuse in the United States, Jarecki came to understand the war on drugs as a destructive force of mass proportions and turned his lens on that system’s destructive effects – including its failure to address the problem of drug addiction itself. As no less an authority than addiction treatment specialist Dr Gabor Maté attests, the attendant punitive criminal justice policies and aggressive policing have worsened some of addiction’s key causes and contributing factors: poverty, alienation, despair. It is Maté who offers one of the most bitter condemnations of the war on drugs when he wonders aloud whether it is actually a failure:

“I’m beginning to think maybe it’s a success. What if it’s a success by keeping police forces busy? What if it’s a success by keeping private jails thriving? What if it’s a success keeping a legal establishment justified in its self-generated activity? Maybe it’s a success on different terms than the publicly stated ones.”

The House I Live In is bold enough to challenge the orthodox image of drug dealers as well as drug users. As David Simon (former newspaper beat reporter, author and creator of “The Wire”) notes in the film, most dealers are employees or middle management for the sole employer in the equivalent of a company town, whose choice of profession in their local economy is entirely pragmatic and logical, in fact barely a choice at all. If many of their bosses are amoral monsters who don’t care about the harm the business does to the local community or to their employees, well, welcome to America: That describes most bosses in the legitimate economy, not just the underground one. Aren’t we always being told that “job creators” like this are to be lauded?

Our entertainment culture is equally infected by this mythology, and progressives should not assume themselves to be immune. The television show “Breaking Bad” is acclaimed by the liberal intelligentsia (arguably justifiable in aesthetic terms), but it is also part of a shift toward portrayal of methamphetamine users and dealers as the current “public enemy number one” in American life. As Simon observes, the drug war began as and continues to be a set of racist policies but has now extended to targeting a swathe of the United States’ increasingly economically marginalized white poor, too. (Thus the class-based nature of all institutional racism is eventually illuminated.)

Once we understand the war on drugs as essentially another front in an ongoing class war waged from the top down, its place can be seen within a wider matrix of American policies that perpetuate inequality and devastate the poor while squeezing any profit from them that can be made.

A Case Study in Fighting Back

So what opportunities exist for resistance or even reform? Some inspiration and hope are offered by How To Survive A Plague, which illustrates, among other things, how economic inequality intersected with other forms of oppression to exacerbate the AIDS crisis and continues to do so. While the two films are concerned with different issues, what those issues have in common is that the populations most affected by both have essentially been abandoned by our political class.

It would be overly simplistic to say that one film focuses on a problem, while the other shows how to start implementing a solution. The House I Live In does point briefly to the efforts that are being made by prison and legal reform groups – efforts that bore fruit to a small extent with the passage of Proposition 36 in California and the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington. Likewise, How to Survive a Plague ends by making it very clear the extent to which AIDS continues to be a crisis and a battle that needs to be fought.

So both films inspire, if not directly demand, action – it’s just that one offers something very rare in documentary filmmaking: a practical example of what form that action might take to achieve some measure of success. How to Survive a Plague isn’t quite a complete how-to for direct-action activism, but it’s a damn good start – call it Direct Action 101. The film chronicles ACT UP and its Treatment and Data Committee (later the Treatment Action Group) from 1987 to 1996 and beyond – from their rabble-rousing beginnings to a degree of acceptance within the scientific, political and medical communities; through their lowest times of in-fighting, schisms and despair; to their most inspiring actions and crucial, hard-won victories.

You will already have heard a lot of talk, post-election, about how now is the time to hold Obama’s feet to the fire, to “make him do it” (never mind that this idea originates in a myth), to pressure elected officials into making progressive decisions. But what both of these films show is that, for the best activists and most urgent causes, that work never stops. It doesn’t let up during election season so that activists can get behind their candidate and defend him or her from criticism.

On the contrary, in How To Survive A Plague we see that ACT UP bird-dogged both candidates for president, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, to push one of them into making some kind of commitment to which they could be held, whichever of them won the 1992 election. By confronting Clinton at a New York City fundraiser, ACT UP member Bob Rafsky prompted not just the famous “I feel your pain” response, but something more substantive: Two days later, Clinton met with members of ACT UP and other activists to discuss his AIDS policies and agreed to make a major AIDS policy speech, to have people with HIV speak to the Democratic Convention and to sign on to United for AIDS Action’s five point plan. Flashforward 20 years, and those few activists brave and smart enough to confront candidates during election season find themselves blocked by barricades and dragged away by militarized police (not that ACT UP protesters didn’t have to contend with plenty of police brutality themselves, as shown by scenes in the film that have a visceral power).

Contrary to the sometimes condescending, sometimes downright abusive rhetoric lobbed at activists who don’t prioritize getting out the vote at election time, recognizing the power of radical direct action is not some kind of impractical idealism. It often involves, for example, identifying the legislator or other public figure who has the power to create a change within the existing system and bird-dogging that person until they are forced to make even a lip-service promise to which they can then be held.

Making pragmatic alliances with imperfect politicians may be a valid activist strategy, but a good test for whether those who urge this are operating in good faith is to gauge their reaction once it’s suggested that this should apply to politicians on both side of the aisle. Just as The House I Live In shows that the drug war is far from an issue that divides America’s two big parties, How To Survive A Plague upends partisan expectations in footage showing activist Peter Staley’s appearance on “Crossfire.” While Pat Buchanan makes the usual conservative implications about the immorality of homosexual acts, he also sympathizes with ACT UP’s efforts to accelerate FDA approval processes, while Tom Braden, on “the left,” chides Staley piously for his uncouth, overly demanding activism and, in a move all-too-familiar among American progressives, reflexively defends the government agency.

Both films manage to be consistently surprising even if you consider yourself someone reasonably well-informed about issues that are kept out of mainstream media and mainstream political discussion. By using only archive interviews with certain HIV-positive activists – often men who spoke on camera about their belief that the disease would kill them in a matter of years – until close to the film’s end, How to Survive a Plague even manages to create a sort of horrible but compelling and emotionally rewarding suspense as to who did indeed survive to this day.

For those who did survive, any compassionate viewer is filled with a sense of relief and admiration, sharing in their disbelief that they made it. For those who died, any compassionate viewer is filled with not only grief but rage on their behalf, a rage stirred by the conviction that these people were killed not just by AIDS, but by the negligence, political cowardice, bigotry, complacency and greed of politicians, religious leaders, medical professionals and pharmaceutical company executives.

The same rage will inevitably fill to bursting any compassionate human heart on witnessing The House I Live In. The film’s closing contention is a comparison so provocative and counter-intuitive that many progressive viewers may recoil (as it appears Jarecki initially did himself).

It is important, however, that we do not turn away. There are times when anger can be the only appropriate reaction – and the catalyst that spurs us to action.