Donald Trump and his people would probably recoil from it, but Frederick Wiseman’s “In Jackson Heights” is a perfectly panoramic portrait of the new America – yearning, teeming, ambitious and teetering on the brink. Made in 2014, it is shot in Wiseman’s patented style – unapologetically direct, unadorned, narration-free and with an editing technique that lands you in each scene like you just jumped off an E train from JFK. It also tackles an unwieldy subject: Jackson Heights is possibly the most diverse, multicultural place on earth: 160-odd languages are spoken in the Queens neighborhood, if not necessarily in this movie.
Wiseman, the grand old man of American documentary, is certainly not one for brevity: “In Jackson Heights” runs 190 minutes, but it earns every one, even though the sequences include such electrifying events as community meetings, church ceremonies and taxi-education classes (the cabbies are hilarious). The time flies by far quicker than in, say, Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next.” And where Moore apologizes for America, Wiseman exalts it – this is still where people want to come, despite the struggle, despite the woes of being undocumented, disenfranchised and/or in the process of being driven out of their adopted home by the rapacious landlords of New York City.
If there’s a common thread to Wiseman’s more than 40 documentaries, it’s examining institutions, be they social (“High School,” “Welfare,” “Public Housing”), cultural (“La Danse,” “Crazy Horse”) and/or correctional (the landmark “Tititcut Follies”). The “institution” of “In Jackson Heights” is the polyglot immigrant community, each group maintaining its identity while co-existing with dozens of others. It’s a feel-good movie in that sense, despite the obvious disorientation and need suffered by some of the subjects. It’s about America being what it’s supposed to be.
“Jackson,” like most Wiseman docs, is also wryly funny, though few of the characters are trying to be. In a class for new citizens, a Bengali woman with very poor English is asked by the teacher what she will say when asked why she wants to be American. “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion…” she answers, and is corrected: No, she’s told, you should say you want to vote, so they know you understand the democratic process. The insistence of the teacher becomes funny, since she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Funny too is a 98-year-old who says she has no friends left. Buy some, she’s told: If you have money you can buy anything.
Money seems in short supply in most of “Jackson Heights,” though not everywhere: Wiseman takes an occasional break from the third-worldish atmosphere under the Roosevelt Avenue El to study the tidy streets of brick and woodsided homes that lie on the periphery of JH’s immigrant hotbed; it’s a way of taking a breath, and acknowledging that not everything in Jackson Heights consists of tattoo and threading parlors, poultry slaughter houses and belly-dancing classes. But most of the film is set within a heady ethnic mélange, where all the food looks delicious and the sense of energy and intelligence are acute. “In Jackson Heights” – which, BTW, is a very entertaining movie — should be earning Wiseman a Pulitzer prize. But an Oscar would be OK.