When taken as a whole, Frederick Wiseman’s U.S.-set documentaries are a celebration of sorts of sloppy American democracy in action: The system may be flawed at the top, but its grassroots pugnacity is consistently admired from the director’s iconic, unobtrusive viewpoint. Jackson Heights is a multiethnic neighborhood in Queens, and “In Jackson Heights” is a classic example of Wiseman’s affinity for this type of subject, full of community organizers and advocacy meetings in which citizens and aspiring citizens learn to use their civic voices. In truth, the camera lingers longer than necessary in these gatherings, but the film has rewards on the macro and micro levels, sure to delight the helmer’s devoted fans.
“In Jackson Heights” is the third of Wiseman’s community-based films, and at three hours, it runs a bit longer than “Aspen” and one hour shorter than “Belfast, Maine.” As with those two, he plunges into the neighborhood in question, balancing a feel for streets and public spaces with a fascination for how inhabitants organize themselves along social and political lines. The appeal of Jackson Heights is obvious: 167 languages are spoken in what’s said to be one of the most diverse communities in the world, encompassing large groups of Hispanic immigrants alongside a sizable Asian population and longtime residents who themselves are likely to be children or grandchildren of immigrants.
Major themes announce themselves fairly early on. There’s a significant gay presence, first encountered in a meeting of the gay seniors’ support group SAGE, convening in the Jewish Center. The borough also boasts the long-running Queens Pride parade, founded by current Councilman Daniel Dromm, who appears in multiple scenes doing his duty as representative for all. The Latino community has a strong presence (at least half the film is in Spanish), with recent arrivals struggling with the rules of citizenship, and small-business owners trying to protect themselves from the imminent arrival of big-brand stores.
What consistently stands out is the activity of associations such as the advocacy group Make the Road New York, and young organizers alerting biz owners of the negative impact that the city’s Business Improvement District will have on their livelihood. Classes for immigrants might be edited together with musicians performing in a laundromat, or Arabic lessons for children at the An-Noor Cultural Center. There are glimpses of tattoo shops and mobile soup kitchens, transgender support sessions and prayers at a Hindu temple. Colombia’s soccer win leads to euphoria on the streets (and unhappy cops), while a 98-year-old woman at a senior center expresses her loneliness. And then toward the end, audiences are rewarded with a hilarious, brilliant tutor for aspiring cabbies.
Roosevelt Avenue — the neighborhood’s main artery, surmounted by elevated subway tracks — is frequently seen, occasionally juxtaposed with solidly middle-class leafy streets of townhouses and apartment blocks. About the only community hardly included are the Far East Asian residents, acknowledged chiefly by shop signs in various languages. The area’s staggering range of restaurants (Jackson Heights is a magnet for foodies) also barely gets a nod, though scenes of sickly fish, and caged poultry in a halal slaughterhouse, will make viewers think twice before booking a table.
While such scenes add flavor, for Wiseman the real interest is in the workings of community organizers, those under-the-radar heroes devoted to ensuring everyone is made aware of how to exercise their rights. Given the manner in which the director has championed such men and women for so many decades, allowing their distinctive American voices to be heard, isn’t it about time someone thought about awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom?
Viewers less attuned to Wiseman’s style will likely find that many scenes run beyond their welcome, though one almost suspects that this is also part of his plan: Meetings can be boring even when they’re for good causes. Camera duty is once again the purview of John Davey, and his lensing is, as usual, crisp, understated and satisfying.