The dangers of discussing Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary In Jackson Heights, a sociologically robust portrait of a Queens neighborhood known for its diverse population, is that you gravitate toward composing a top five list of your favorite scenes and writing about that; something I hope to avoid. Based on his recent films, beginning with At Berkeley and followed by National Gallery, I don’t think it would be unfair to call Wiseman a maximalist. At 190 minutes, In Jackson Heights is only the second longest of those films (Berkley clocking in at over four hours, National Gallery at a comparatively brief 181 minutes). Not to suggest that length strictly applies to the concept of maximalism, but it’s clear that Wiseman’s exploration of minute details has required an ample runtime to elaborate on the profundity of his subjects. As such, the results have been transportive. Through his keen observational approach, Wiseman’s maximalist tendencies promote a distinct sensitivity to his surroundings. The Berkeley campus exudes warmth, the corridors of the National Gallery feel stepped in and conquered, and with In Jackson Heights, the meticulous details of Wiseman’s craft persuades you into submitting yourself to the milieu – you are a citizen of this community. This goes beyond superficial sightseeing or touristy asides. From the bookended aerial images that ornate the picture, you’re beak-deep in Jackson Heights.
Wiseman covers a vast surface and his filmmaking acknowledges the difficulty associated with such an expansive project. From the macro imagery of NYC bustling, he closes in on the arteries of the neighborhood. Images shift from the railway trains that unite the community to the various street intersections before honing in on his subjects. From Muslim worshipers praying in a basement to street musicians to an alderman’s office, there’s a polemic that Wiseman quickly establishes as the worshipers proclaim, “cleanse yourself of anger and hate”. It’s an expressed concern of In Jackson Heights, a community built and defined by both its diversity and the subsequent discrimination that comes from that diversity. In a neighborhood where Julio Rivera, a gay bartender murdered in the early 90s in an example of mindless homophobia, serves as a constant reminder of the community’s past demons, we see Wiseman excel at illustrating Jackson Heights’ citizens wrestle with its history. As a knitting club acknowledges later in the film, there’s a distinct sense that in the midst of the community’s progress rests a burial ground of deep-rooted regret.
A critical and immediate dynamic to the documentary, and a recurring narrative found within the picture, are the growing concerns of gentrification. Overtly discussed in relation to the closure of shopping center, where Latinos lease a majority of the structure’s shops, Wiseman illustrates the systemic discrimination that occurs in a community valued not for its people and culture but for its proximity to an upper economic strata. In one of the film’s most condemning and poignant sequences, Wiseman holds an uninterrupted shot on a shopkeeper who details a likely sequence of events that propagates the infiltration of big business on the small shopkeeper. It’s the threnody of a capitalistic inevitability, though this lament is confronted not by fatigued acceptance but angered vitality; this is a community that will not accept this cultural, social, and economic change without a fight.
It’s this willful desire to confront the mechanisms of capitalism and discrimination that makes In Jackson Heights so vital, so lived in. What we see here can occur in just about any culturally diverse community. These are struggles that can and have occurred in every Chicago neighborhood, whether they be the gentrification concerns of Pilsen and Logan Square, the logistics of organizing a parade in Lakeview, the messy spillage of camaraderie after a sports event in Wrigleyville, or the pronounced diversity of Uptown and Rogers Park. But in Wiseman’s hands, these universal concerns are provided in a concentrated, maximized vessel. He probes the concerns of this community during the night and day, sensitive to their anxieties while unrelenting in his directness. The aforementioned long take of a man confessing his fears of gentrification are among many where citizens unspool their tenuous troubles. Yet never does the film become tedious or overwhelming in its study. Rather, every one of these confessions is confronted not by hostility or venom, but warmth, cleansed of hatred. The concerns of the world are cyclical and forceful, but within the right community, manageable. I don’t think there’s ever been a film that has addressed such existential plights through a lens of a community with such humanism and hope.