Frederick Wiseman’s new mega-docu is an unflinching yet surprisingly upbeat look at life in the projects. Length and production non-values will probably guarantee that “Public Housing” remains mostly in the box, where it is slowly rolling out on national PBS stations through the winter, although library copies should circulate in every urban center in America and some limited theatrical play could be warranted.
Two hundred minutes is long for a movie, but it’s a short haul compared with a life locked into poverty and crime. Wiseman’s pic — as usual, told without narration or other editorializing devices — looks at just a few days in the life of a single housing project, the decaying Ida B. Wells complex on Chicago’s south side, in an area ghettoized by racially tinged freeway construction. Its residents may all be black and mostly impoverished, but that’s where aud assumptions should end. Remarkably, docu is no sob story, but a quietly hope-filled, sometimes inspiring (and occasionally frustrating) look at some under-classers who are starting to figure out which side is up.
In local meetings with business and government reps, in an ad-hoc men’s group and alongside frequent conversations with Helen Finner, the unflappable longtime head of the Wells residents’ council — she’s usually on the phone with smarmy civil servants — we see articulate, motivated people sorting out where city and federal money comes from (and where it is wasted). Unexpectedly, the film is less about a finger-pointing past than about a tangible future in which former left-behinds marshal their resources and start moving toward serious political engagement.
Pic doesn’t avoid frazzled fringe-dwellers — mostly small-time druggies — who tax police patience and energy, and it’s hard not to be distressed by the sight of a convenience store that sells its low-nutrition goodies through bullet-proof portals. Still, these things are seen in proper proportion to the majority of law-abiding citizens struggling against the odds. A big part of those odds is the stereotyped behavior portrayed in movies and TV, and “Housing” does a public service by counteracting the cliches without resorting to melodrama or false heroics.
Epic is stoical to a fault, with play-it-as-it-lays editing, rough lensing and zero commentary — musical or otherwise. Its concerns, length and 16mm format will undoubtedly restrict it to homegrown auds, mostly of tube variety, but that’s enough to make it an important and timely statement.