A 4½-hour documentary about Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration? Yeah, that’s a real thing and we watched it, just in case taking in the sausage-making of city government for 275 minutes is not your idea of a thrilling night out.
The upshot of “City Hall” is that its Boston namesake has never looked so good, both figuratively and literally. The film is beautifully shot, and the city government it portrays is one that cares for its people. The documentary is the latest offering from legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, a 90-year-old who grew up in Brighton. He captured Boston’s municipal operations between October 2018 and November 2019, and his fly-on-the-wall style is very kind — perhaps too kind — to Walsh and his administration.
Here are five takeaways from “City Hall”:
Walsh comes off well
Like, really, really well. As others have put it, the documentary could be viewed as a way-too-long campaign video for the 53-year-old Dorchester native. In the film, he is unwaveringly empathetic, hard-working, and earnest, whether it’s talking about the traumatic ripple effects of street violence in a community or warning a room full of seniors about over-the-phone scams.
Mahty, as he calls himself, is the nonrhotic protagonist of “City Hall,” and he is perhaps at his best when talking about his recovery from alcoholism. There is an undeniable authenticity in his openness of past missteps. It also provides him a way to relate to the personal pain of others.
In “City Hall,” the Walsh administration appears as an extension of hizzoner: eager to listen, and to help. In one particularly poignant scene, city housing inspector Israel Timberlake checks on a veteran in his 70s who has a rat infestation in his apartment. You get the feeling the man, his rodent problems notwithstanding, just wants someone to talk to. He mentions his divorce 18 years prior, his anti-anxiety pills, the stents in his heart, past water damage caused by raccoons in his ceiling.
“My spirit’s broken,” the man tells the guy who just checked his kitchen for rat droppings.
Timberlake listens attentively, empathizes, promises to contact his landlord to see what the hold-up with the pest problem is, and gives the man his cellphone number.
Race is a throughline of the film
Just as it remains central to the story of Boston, the issue of race underpins much of the film. It shows the city and its government as diverse and still coming to terms with significant structural inequalities.
Walsh talks about the forced busing that defined the city’s school desegregation during the 1970s. At one point, he recalls feeling confused as a child when he saw a school bus being escorted by police motorcycles while he went to a neighborhood Catholic school.
“Since that time, Boston has made some progress,” he says.
Still, well before the death of George Floyd and the racial reckoning the city currently finds itself in, Walsh acknowledges that the city’s racial disparities remain deep and the “distrust that we have is real in a lot of areas in our society.”
Walsh says that as a white mayor of the city, it’s important for him to listen and learn about the pain of people of color. He even cops to a mistake, saying that as candidate he tried to “make up answers” on the issue of race.
“If you get somebody up here making conversation and trying to make up answers, like I did when I was a candidate, it’s not the way to go and I did that as a candidate, trying to see what I could do,” he said.
In one scene where he is addressing a group of Latinx leaders, Walsh talks of the discrimination faced by Irish people in the 19th century and how that ethnic group coalesced politically and rose to power.
“That’s really what every community that comes to this country has done over time,” he says.
Left unsaid is how whiteness aided Irish-Americans' climb up the social ladder. How the reference landed in the room, and whether the attendees viewed it as ham-handed or apt, is not addressed.
In another scene, Walsh discusses Boston’s forced busing dilemma of the 1970s with Michael Curry, an attorney who is a past president of the NAACP’s Boston branch, saying that “If the School Committee, elected at the time, took action . . .”
Curry then finishes the thought for him, saying that action would have “. . . staved off that whole experience.”
The exchange leaves the impression that both men believe if the School Committee integrated the city’s schools, court-ordered forced busing could potentially have been avoided.
Walsh says that generation of political leadership in the city missed an opportunity.
The specter of President Trump and his administration hovers over some scenes, spoken about but never seen. In the film, Walsh’s administration is positioned in stark contrast to the seemingly endless dysfunction and mendacity of the White House under the 45th president. During one meeting, William Onuoha, executive director of the city’s fair housing and equity office, described a proposed federal rule change that he said would make it harder for people to lodge a housing discrimination complaint against a bank lender or housing provider.
"We are watching the erosion of civil rights,” he tells the room.
Elsewhere, Walsh swells with pride when discussing his reaction to a Trump travel ban that affected numerous Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s initial ban had suspended travel from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen for 90 days, blocked refugee admissions for 120 days, and suspended travel from Syria. Walsh, who is the son of immigrants, said when he heard the news of the ban, he held a press conference where he asked every immigrant and first-generation City Hall worker to stand behind him.
“That was a proud moment because I was standing amongst my peers . . . I might be the mayor but I’m a public employee,” he says.
Wiseman’s latest work also spotlights public meetings in the city. One vignette includes a truly boring school committee meeting, where various officials rattle off bunches of eye-drooping jargon. The point, perhaps, is that much of what makes a city tick is decidedly unsexy. But this comes in the midst of a film that stretches far longer than the average NFL game.
Another community meeting in “City Hall” is more boisterous; a cannabis shop is looking to open in Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood, and the room, filled with residents, pulsates with tough skepticism. Here, there is little doubt that Boston is still in many ways a city segregated by race and parochial by neighborhood. Those in attendance are frank: there is street violence in the neighborhood; the neighborhood is poor and has suffered from bad planning.
The questions for those behind the proposed shop are numerous: How close will it be to the nearest school? Who are they hiring and where are they hiring from? How many parking spaces? How many shoppers can it handle? Will there be a line down the block? What will the entrepreneurs do to help Black people? Is there anyone behind the proposal who represents one of the major ethnic groups of the community? What will they do to stop double parking?
Boston looks beautiful and dynamic in the film
Downtown’s glass skyscrapers; South Boston’s triple deckers; the East Boston waterfront; the Strand Theatre in Dorchester’s Uphams Corner; even the much-maligned brutalism of the film’s namesake is striking in its gray, monolithic way. The clips without dialogue go a long way in finding the city’s vibe, and portraying its struggles and successes.
Other scenes capture everyday happenings that become interesting in their banality and open-endedness: a police roll call preceding a shift, a building inspection of a gutted residence near the waterfront, firefighters responding to a run-of-the-mill call, the wide array of calls and complaints into the city’s 311 center, a pair of people appealing their parking tickets (and winning!).
There is one scene where some mattresses are disposed of in a tight residential neighborhood that defines Charlestown.
In Wiseman’s hands, a couple of garbagemen throwing stuff into the back of a trash truck is meaningful art.