Brad Pitt threw his considerable celebrity behind the documentary "The House I Live In" on Friday night at the Sundance Sunset cinemas in West Hollywood, making a surprise appearance to introduce Eugene Jarecki's film, joke about his past drug use and tell the audience that the war on drugs is a costly failure.
"I think it's safe to say that the drug war is nonsensical," Pitt told TheWrap in an interview before his appearance.
"It's a backwards, inept strategy."
Added Jarecki, "The 'tough on crime' strategy failed. We created a war on drugs, which is a trillion dollars spent over 40 years, 45 million arrests, leading to nothing. Drugs are cheaper, purer, more available than ever before, and used by younger and younger people. Who can stand by that?"
A few minutes later, Pitt walked to the front of a half-filled 180-seat theater and introduced himself to a surprised audience by saying, "Hi, everybody. I'm Brad Pitt. And I'm a drug addict."
He laughed and shook his head. "Actually, my drug days have long passed, but it's certainly true that I could land in any city and any state and get you anything you wanted. Just give me 24 hours, and I'll know where to find it.
"And yet we still talk about the drug war as if it's a success."
Pitt has signed on as an executive producer of Jarecki's sobering, saddening and methodically-presented documentary, which won the grand jury prize for documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival and opened in theaters on Friday.
"I was talking to his production company, Plan B, about a fiction project I was working on," Jarecki told TheWrap in an interview with Pitt before the screening. "I didn't know what to expect from Brad – he's this mega-human, so you don't know what you're gonna get."
As Pitt laughed and repeated, "mega-human!," Jarecki continued. "But he's just an unusually analytic, careful, deep dramaturgic thinker. And I thought, well, I might as well talk to him about some of the other stuff I'm struggling with, and I brought up what I was doing with the drug war."
Pitt, he said, was immediately interested. "He navigates elegantly, as much as anybody I've ever seen, between having his public role and also having his conscientious private self, and his concerns about the world, be generally evident to people."
Pitt chuckled. "And his drug-addict self as well," he added.
The two men talked about the failures of the war on drugs, and about Jarecki's contention – which Pitt originally said was "too liberal even for me" – that the criminal approach to drugs was being used to keep poor and minority communities down.
The doc explores the way in which urban and African-American communities were subject to disproportionately harsh treatment in the "war" that began during the Nixon administration — and the way in which poor white communities became hard-hit as well as the economic downturn pushed underclass whites toward the allure of methamphetamine use and dealing.
"We talked about those in poverty, and what he thought was the biggest stumbling block and the biggest thing holding them down," Pitt said. "And certainly I had my own questions about the drug war. There might be something else in play here, like we witnessed with Katrina."
But with an issue that is such a political hot potato, can we realistically expect any politicians to embrace a change in policy from a law-enforcement strategy to a public-health approach?
After all, Jarecki's film admits that no politician would ever dare campaign on a "let's loosen the penalties for drug crimes" platform.
"I think we're going to find out," Pitt said. "You can't argue it economically anymore. It just doesn't make sense to carry on this way. It's just not working.
"When you see the repercussions from this policy, and the cost on people trying to get ahead, you've gotta start asking questions. I think it's time. I think it's come to a head, and we've got to look at our choices."
Added Jarecki, "We are doing a bunch of heavy lifting to get the film out to audiences across the country, not just audiences in arthouses. The constituencies that need to close in on this film are everybody from Washington down to Main Street.
"We have seven million people in this country who are in some form or another under control of the criminal justice system, whether they are in jail or on probation or parole or other sort of systemic control. The number of family members who are attached to that is about 20 million people.
"There is a huge population in this country who have a vested interest in how this turns out, who have to be appealed to in a new and different way. And along comes somebody on Brad's level.
Musician John Legend, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and actor Danny Glover are also involved in the film, he said. "We have growing constituencies who are making it easier for politicians to realize, You know what? Maybe there's cover here. Maybe we can all agree that this was a chapter and it's time for a new approach, to become smart on crime."
"Smart on crime is the key," added Pitt. "We have biggest penal system in the world, we have the most people incarcerated. And out of that 2.3 million, how many are for non-violent crimes?"
"About half," said Jarecki.
"Half," repeated Pitt. "Something's wrong."