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Frederick Wiseman documents an American melting pot

In Jackson Heights offers a tour of New York's most racially diverse neighborhood.


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In Jackson Heights is the most joyful feature by master documentary maker Frederick Wiseman, celebrating not only the title neighborhood in Queens but American life in all its diversity. The film's design evokes that of a sprawling patchwork quilt, with scenes focusing on the immigrant experience, LGBT activism, municipal governance, the serenity of old age, working life, and more. Wiseman touches on such dark topics as police brutality and the exploitation of migrants, yet he manages to put a positive spin on them, recording citizens' groups as they look for constructive solutions. Rarely do movies present the democratic process with such warmth and optimism. Wiseman inspires affection for many of his subjects, and this generous feeling grows more intense as the community portrait grows richer. These people are interdependent, gaining from their diversity.

At a community meeting early in the movie, city councilman Daniel Dromm avers that 167 different languages are spoken in Jackson Heights, which is home to immigrants from all over the planet. More remarkable than these facts, however, is that all these groups seem to live in relative harmony. The meeting in question, to plan the annual Queens gay pride parade, occurs at a Jewish community center; when Wiseman returns to this space later, someone notes that it also hosts Muslim organizations, senior citizen meet-ups, and other groups. Make the Road, a center for Spanish-speaking immigrants where much of the movie's action takes place, also serves as the meeting site for transgender rights activists.

The latter issue makes In Jackson Heights one of Wiseman's most topical movies, as do the scenes concerning gentrification. Throughout the film small business owners meet to bemoan the encroaching influence of corporate interests on the neighborhood and worry about being priced out of their storefronts. Yet even in these scenes one recognizes a certain enthusiasm among the participants, who come together in the hope of creating a movement larger than themselves. The sense of despair is undercut by fascinating scenes of these small businesses operating; one of the most compelling sequences, set in a halal chicken shop, shows workers killing and preparing chickens for market. Such workaday activity, Wiseman implies, is just as important to the community as the political activity, and his pragmatic outlook grounds the film's idealism.  v


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