Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights doesn’t just celebrate a neighborhood; it immerses you in it. A working-class neighborhood in Queens, about a half-hour’s subway ride from Manhattan, Jackson Heights features a patchwork of ethnicities and an ever-transitioning gateway for immigrants looking to get a toehold in America. Home to so many thousands of the documented and undocumented immigrants living alongside a stewpot of native-borns, Jackson Heights is a living civics laboratory for the ever-evolving American experiment.
Jackson Heights’ residents feature a dizzying mix of religions (Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Hare Krishna), languages (167 is the count given in the film), and nationalities, from Columbian and Bangladeshi to Tibetan, Peruvian, and Mexican. It appears that every group has at least some businesses catering to their needs or preferences. Wiseman shoots inside a halal butcher shop with Spanish signage, a language school for aspiring cabbies that announces, “Urdu is spoken here”, and a synagogue with a dwindling membership that keeps its doors open by renting the space out to everyone from Muslim to LGBT groups.
Moving through tree-lined residential streets and thoroughfares supporting every kind of business from sari and kebab shops to nightclubs and salons, the camera reveals a diversity that recalls the Lower East Side of an earlier era, as well as one of the city’s rare affordable mixed-income havens. As such, Jackson Heights is also in the crosshairs of gentrification. The tension from that awareness on the part of residents thrums through this lengthy, deceptively placid documentary, capturing a time and place just before it changes forever.
In Jackson Heights is shot in Wiseman’s trademark fly-on-the-wall manner, with long takes of street life or the occasional lengthy soliloquy at a community meeting. At just over three hours, it might test the patience of documentary fans not used to Wiseman’s patient, slow-cinema approach. But the film is also lively, in synch with its subject matter. Unlike Wiseman’s recent films, At Berkeley and National Gallery, which took microscopic views of longstanding institutions, here he goes for the bigger view. His camera darts in and out of a variety of events in a nearly impressionistic manner. It drops into businesses and community gatherings, listening in on arguments and speeches and protests, marches along with a gay pride parade, and watches as a small business owner frets that he and others like him are doomed.
The film’s eavesdropping structure suggests a purposeful randomness. Even though Wiseman shot for several weeks during the summer of 2014, he links the shots in In Jackson Heights together as though they all took place over a few days. The film transitions through full days, from morning to evening, several times, routines spaced out with interstitials of everything from Arabic lessons to flower vendors, scored to an urban pastoral soundtrack of rattling elevated trains and rustling trees.
The patterns give way to some stunning stories: one immigrant woman’s gripping story about her daughter’s grueling two weeks being lost in the desert gives a glimpse into the price new arrivals are willing to pay just to get a shot at an American dream, embattled or not. For every emotionally wrenching scene — such as the one where a woman walking to the hospital comes across Christian volunteers from the South and asks them to prayer for her dying father, or the old woman at the Jewish center who wonders out loud if there’s a point to being alive anymore — there are others that track themes. These become clear over time: Wiseman starts on Julio Rivera Corner, named in honor of a gay Latino man murdered in 1990. He focuses on evolving gay rights throughout, whether showing a protest for transgender equality or the area’s councilman Danny Dromm welcoming Mayor Bill de Blasio to the pride parade.
The film also circles back to Make the Road, an immigrant-assistance center, and a traveling pair of community organizers trying to inform the small business owners about a new Business Improvement District which could end up being a smoke-screen for an onslaught of rising rents and chain stores. “Manhattan is already packed,” one man complains, warning of big corporations and wealthy white entrepreneurs in search of real estate bargains. They’re “coming here next,” he says.
In In Jackson Heights, community is moving and ever shifting, shaping and shaped by its residents. It would be difficult to find a stronger, more effective rebuke to the brigades of anti-immigrant, English-only Tea Party reactionaries, those who would erase Emma Lazarus’ welcoming words from a certain statue in New York Harbor. Sure, the film ends in fireworks on the Fourth of July. Why not? This is America, after all.