As Republican presidential candidates vie with each other to show who’s the most xenophobic, Cambridge-based filmmaker Frederick Wiseman’s 40th documentary, “In Jackson Heights,” a layered portrait of that Queens, N.Y., neighborhood, explores the values and complexities of a multicultural community.
Employing a structure and style that has not changed much in five decades and is especially effective in his previous two films, “At Berkeley” (2013) and “National Gallery” (2014), Wiseman rhythmically shifts from surfaces to inner workings, building insights and themes with illuminating repetitions, finding the universal truths in the microcosm, with the only editorial commentary the subtle dynamics of the editing itself. Simply said, he demonstrates that we are a nation of immigrants, and our strength comes from inclusiveness, tolerance, and diversity.
Neighborhoods don’t get much more diverse than Jackson Heights. As City Councilman Daniel Dromm points out in the film, there are more than 167 languages spoken there.
He mentions this as he addresses an LGBT organization planning the Queens Gay Pride parade in honor of Julio Rivera, a gay Latino man murdered in what was deemed a hate crime in Jackson Heights in 1990.
Times have changed since then. But not entirely for the best.
Wiseman drops in on other community meetings addressing a more urgent concern: gentrification. An organization called Business Improvement Districts (BID), described by one organizer as a cabal of real estate moguls, has offered promises of neighborhood improvement that community activists denounce as false and misleading and has infiltrated Jackson Heights through a deceptive ballot. As a result, many small businesses face eviction, to be replaced by such chain stores as the Gap, Home Depot, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Small property owners have been forced to raise their rents or sell as wealthier residents move in. One activist relates this process in a long lecture to a group of dismayed locals, which provides a lucid explanation of the triumph of the rich and entitled over the middle and working classes.
So, what’s the big deal? A bunch of local butchers, tattoo parlors, ethnic grocery stores, and clubs offering authentic world music, sacrificed in the name of progress? Some local color lost, perhaps, but if the community prospers, at least for some people, perhaps it’s worth it.
By capturing the textures, patterns, faces, and details of Jackson Heights, Wiseman shows what kind of loss it would be. In between the meetings discussing the threats to the community, Wiseman visits the community itself.
He inserts montages of local sights and street life — pedestrians in saris, burkas, yarmulkes, and T-shirts strolling past the vibrant variety of storefronts or just hanging out on the corner or playing in the park with kids. He visits a tiny mosque where the imam preaches against hate, a belly dancing class, a Catholic religious goods shop where they are repairing a life-size plaster baby Jesus with a missing arm, a Hindu ceremony with porcelain images of gods who look on with solemn bemusement.
It’s a mirror of the lives of the people who speak those 167 different languages, and a mirror of America. In a generation or two, if the homogenization and commodification of culture continue, this film may be one of the few records that such a place existed.
IN JACKSON HEIGHTS
Directed by Frederick Wiseman. At Museum of Fine Arts. 190 minutes. Unrated (graphically butchered poultry, corporate destruction of communities). In English, Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi, with subtitles.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.