At 85, with almost fifty documentary features to his credit, Frederick Wiseman stands as one of the great unsung humanists in American cinema. His name is not well enough known (even among cinephiles) because his films are not easily available outside of university libraries, in spite of the fact that they are produced with money from public television and occasionally air on PBS. Audiences used to more traditional forms of documentary filmmaking are also likely to find Wiseman’s techniques disorganized or boring. That’s because Wiseman prefers expansiveness to concision and refuses to coddle the viewer with any underscoring, musical or otherwise. In his ethnographic films—Aspen; Belfast, Maine; At Berkeley; and now In Jackson Heights—his approach is rather to drop the viewer into a particular place and force them to use their observational and critical thinking skills to form their own conclusions. If you walk away from a Wiseman film thinking that you haven’t seen anything interesting, it’s because you weren’t paying attention—something that Wiseman uncompromisingly demands of his audience.
I call Wiseman a humanist because even as he appears to regard his subjects with an unflinching neutrality (he never resorts to any sort of propagandistic drum-beating or flag-waving) the films are suffused with a basic respect for and interest in people: how they talk, how they work, where they live, what they value. In Jackson Heights is only “about” gentrification, immigration, racism, or homophobia to the extent that the individual people in the film act as vectors through which these issues may be addressed. Rather than imposing a political agenda on his subjects, Wiseman lets them speak for themselves. By this method, Wiseman gives us a portrait of a racially and ethnically diverse community made up of shopkeepers, politicians, musicians, food service workers, prostitutes, teachers, retirees, activists; all are enmeshed in systems of power, and many are threatened by deportation, economic disenfranchisement, and discrimination, but the film is as much about showing them eating, joking, and dancing as it is about dramatizing the injustices that they face.
At three hours, Jackson Heights is made up of countless human dramas. A few, such as a grassroots effort to stop corporations from buying up real estate and displacing local businesses, recur throughout the film. Others are more fleeting. A 98-year-old widow expresses her loneliness and desire for companionship. Members of a transgender support group discuss their experiences with street harassment and transphobia. A mariachi band performs on the sidewalk. Hair is cut, chickens are slaughtered, vegetables are purchased, skin is tattooed, birthdays are celebrated, and meetings are held—many meetings, in nearly all of which community members demonstrate an investment in making their neighborhood a better place, whatever that may look like.
What emerges over the course of the film is a sense of the possibilities and the limits of American democracy itself. Wiseman’s America—a nation that, the film reminds us, many risk their lives to enter—holds infinite possibility and promises nothing. In this vision of America, which is as cynical as it is hopeful, the best one can hope to do is stake a claim and fight every day to hang on to it. But to describe this as the film’s thesis makes Jackson Heights sound lofty. For Wiseman, the lofty and the grand can only be found by keeping one’s eyes on the ground and the people who walk there.