‘In Jackson Heights’ Masterfully Captures the Scope of American Diversity


Leave it to Frederick Wiseman to make a cinematic masterpiece about something as humdrum and close to the ground as community organizing. The filmmaker’s attention in recent years has mostly been focused on single institutions, albeit vast ones. With In Jackson Heights he has turned from the interior, controlled spaces of arts and education and to the open air theater of the diverse urban neighborhood. It’s a looser experience, at least as it gathers steam. Wiseman builds Jackson Heights from the bottom up, presenting it as a constellation of different communities spread across the often confusing street map of central Queens.

He begins with a meeting of the Queens Center for Gay Seniors, which has a temporary home at the Jackson Heights Jewish Center. The discussion, about possible plans to move to another part of the city, is a perfect introduction to the neighborhood. Even if they could have their own space, some of them argue, it wouldn’t be worth it to leave Jackson Heights. It’s conveniently located, its subway station is handicapped accessible, and it’s where the community has always been. For a group of racially diverse gay and lesbian seniors, this is the place where they all feel on safe, common ground.

Wiseman then spends the next three hours crisscrossing the neighborhood with his camera. Some characters are constrained to a single scene, such as a brief sojourn in an Islamic school or a hilarious dip into a basement school for aspiring South Asian cab drivers. Other narratives return again and again. A group of activists try to organize local business owners to oppose a proposed Business Improvement District, based on the rationale that it will only help landlords and will eventually drive out small businesses. Wiseman watches their rhetorical skill grow from awkward introductions in little restaurants to compelling speeches at community meetings. Eventually, after the very gradual unfolding of their progress, victory seems possible.

All the while, Wiseman focuses on storytelling as the primary tool of community organization. At a local center for undocumented immigrants, individuals are invited to stand up and tell of their long journeys over the border and eventually to New York City. A local queer community center is a safe space for transgender people to share their experiences, both of foundational moments and of the struggles of day to day life. Jewish senior citizens, young activists, small business owners and even one well-loved local politician spin yarns for Wiseman’s camera. It’s no wonder that the filmmaker has himself compared the film to a novel on multiple occasions. It sprawls like a great work of literature, weaving many narratives together like the truly expansive Great American Novel we’ve never really had.

Yet the magic of In Jackson Heights is not only in its longer scenes and more extended dramatic arcs. Wiseman is also in top form for the segments in between, much more than just establishing shots of building exteriors. The great fight over the BID, for example, is resolved not through a long sequence of defeat but rather through a single, brief glimpse of a trash bin sponsored by the new organization. He’ll spend just a minute or so in a restaurant or a pet store, offering a brief glimpse of an all-female mariachi band performing in the street or the goings on of an eyebrow-threading joint. The same buildings return again and again, but each time from a different angle or at a different time of day. He captures the polyphony of light and sound just as crisply as social diversity.

One unexpected visual joke is instructive. Wiseman follows a long conversation between a group of middle-aged women in a local coffee shop, the bulk of which has to do with local cemeteries and the protection of historic places. After they’ve addressed more pressing business, however, conversation turns to old movies. One member of the group talks about Captain from Castille, a 1947 film starring Cesar Romero and Tyrone Power, two of her favorite actors. At the time, she had no idea that either of them was gay. Since then she’s come to humorous but exasperated revelation that all of her favorite actors were gay. It’s no accident that, to close the scene, Wiseman immediately cuts to a shot of a hunky man mowing the lawn in a white tank top.

On the whole, actually, In Jackson Heights is a very queer film. Wiseman spends a lot of time with transgender activists and aging gay seniors, and even at one point ventures into a local gay bar to shoot some go-go boys. The climax of the final hour is the Queens Pride Parade, an event for which a variety of characters have spent much of the film preparing. Daniel Dromm, a local city council member who gives Wiseman impressive access to his life and work, is enormously proud of this uniquely diverse Queens event, a much more organic and less corporate affair than the one across the East River in Manhattan.

Of course, In Jackson Heights isn’t primarily a film about the queer Queens experience. It isn’t primarily about any single theme in particular, though this point can be something of a Rorschach test. Some critics have argued that the film places the issue of immigration above all else, for example. Yet the Wiseman’s real triumph is that he privileges no single issue, even among his major themes. In Jackson Heights is, from start to finish, a portrait of intersectionality in the most intersectional neighborhood in the world.

The Queens Pride Parade goes all the way back to the murder of Julio Rivera, a 29-year old gay man who was killed in cold blood back in 1990. It was not only the gay part of him who was attacked, or only the Latino part. The celebration of his memory is a total community exercise. Everything in Wiseman’s film affects multiple groups, as well as the individuals who cross between them. Police brutality affects everyone, from the abuse of transgender people late at night to the excessive force used against those celebrating Colombia’s victories in the 2014 World Cup. There is no one kind of immigrant, nor is there one race of senior citizen struggling to age safely in the neighborhood. This effort to capture not simply the diversity of Jackson Heights but the way that it overlaps, not only across streets but within individual people, is the prosaic triumph of Wiseman’s great American documentary.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.