The opening rooftop shot of In Jackson Heights gazes down at a street block that contains several intersections within a short distance. It’s as much an indication of the New York community’s overlapping cultures as the subsequent montage of life in the area, with signs in multiple languages and people of various ethnicities filtering between religious and secular meeting places. These spaces often converge, as when local council member Daniel Dromm speaks about the upcoming Pride parade at a Jewish community center on Julio Rivera Way (named after a gay youth who was murdered in 1990). Dromm mentions several nationalities with strong local communities on hand to support the parade, then jokingly says he must now name them all and starts running through a list of ethnicities in rapid fire.
Frederick Wiseman’s documentary approach, with its lack of definite protagonists, talking-head interviews, or even identifying credit, naturally lends itself to montage, with every shot fulfilling less of a narrative purpose than a contextual one. In compressed spaces, this style permits the director to reveal the intricacies of organization, an in-out scale that reveals the far-reaching impact of a few people. For a topic as broad as a richly diverse community, however, that relationship inverts, gradually focusing the overwhelming sweep of an area down to the individuals and groups working to keep things running. Wiseman’s latest crosses such a dizzying number of paths that the Queens neighborhood starts to feel as vast as the entire city.
Dromm provides a de facto center of attention in the host of activists, business owners, and regular people, but this is not because of his status as a politician. The film regularly makes clear that the councilman wields no real power, but what he does provide is the first point of access for people who wish to interact with government in any capacity. In an early scene, his office is slammed with calls from outraged constituents over the abrupt creation of a homeless shelter in his district, and his staff engages in some one-sided phone conversations worthy of Bob Newhart, particularly one woman whose exasperated face, forever modulating in a series of instant, silent calming exercises, speaks for thousands of beleaguered call representatives. She even earns the film’s first cheer-worthy moment when she bats back the caller’s “gross misunderstanding of federal law.”
As Dromm and his staff grapple with the minutiae of shelters and school zoning, private activists work to unify the neighborhood’s citizens while respecting their differences. One self-imposed limitation of narrative cinema, especially in the American studio system, is that characters cannot embody more than one kind of minority, less it somehow strain the belief of the white, heterosexual middle class designated as the default audience. But Wiseman’s free-form assembly points out the convergence points between LGBT, immigrant, and labor-rights organization.
Meetings pop up in shops, community centers, even homes where Wiseman captures everything from a woman’s harrowing tale of her immigration out of Mexico to Latino business owners discovering the extent to which the system is trying to push them out of employment. In an age where the Internet links movements on such a large level, it’s edifying to see how minuscule groups of people are still the ones who set things into motion, who do the legwork of directly fighting for those around them.
When he is not shooting footage of these meetings and demonstrations, Wiseman soaks up the vibrancy of the neighborhood. Music is a constant here, whether the various forms of ethnic music piped through shop and salon speakers or in the ubiquitous live performances that seem to occupy every available nook and cranny. Wiseman’s slice-of-life observations note things like a chicken abattoir with Spanish signs manned entirely by Muslims of Middle Eastern origin, or a meeting of gay seniors who weigh the pros and cons of using a Jewish center for meetings, with one man nervous about the occasional homophobia they face and another deadpanning, “We’ve been fighting homophobia all our lives. We’re gonna stop now?” Characters emerge with only a few minutes of screentime, one of the best being a South Asian cab instructor who manages to be funny and mirthless at the same time, the cadence of his voice rendering all of his lessons mocking and sarcastic.
By meshing these scenes of everyday life with active politicking, the film bridges the two as equal expressions of identity. What In Jackson Heights suggests is that communities in the United States are in a constant state of cold civil war, and that the status quo—whether conservative or liberal—is not simply a given but the result of constant lobbying and effort. About two hours into the film, during another after-hours meeting between priced-out small business owners, the word “Williamsburg” is invoked by the Spanish activists the way Southerners might refer to Gettysburg, the site of a crippling, decisive defeat where, in this case, working-class Latinos were all but completely expelled so that upper-middle-class whites could move in and enjoy all the personality and creativity left behind. Wiseman’s film is a beautiful tribute to a community with dozens of nationalities and languages, but it is truly galvanizing, and unsettling, in its implication that everyone who lives in the neighborhood, and maybe every resident in every neighborhood, is a conscript, whether conscious or not, in the fight for its maintenance.