Review: In Jackson Heights (2015)


The Jackson Heights neighbourhood in Queens, New York is arguably the most ethnically diverse neighbourhood on the planet. With residents speaking over a hundred different languages and hailing from dozens of ethnic communities, the neighbourhood is a perfect encapsulation of western multiculturalism. In Jackson Heights is veteran documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s extensive look at this neighbourhood, recording the daily routines and struggles of its residents during the summer of 2014.

Frederick Wiseman is known for his fly-on-the-wall observational style of documentary filmmaking, which allows the viewer unmanipulated access to the daily lives of its subjects. There are no talking head interviews, no authorial narration, no manipulative camerawork or newsreel footage to provide context. Wiseman lets the neighbourhood speak for itself in its symphony of diverse perspectives and experiences. 

With In Jackson Heights, he brings his camera into mosques, churches, synagogues, LGBT meetings, new immigrant service meetings, taxi tutoring classes, slaughterhouses, grocery stores, city council offices, and small businesses to offer us a neighbourhood mosaic. He shows us the elation of the local Latino community over the Colombian national football team’s success in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. He records the Queens Pride Parade, which has been going on for 23 years in honour of Julio Rivera, who was murdered in 1990 in Jackson Heights because he was gay. The film is overwhelmingly detailed.

Running over three hours in length, Wiseman is occasionally overly-confident in his viewer’s attention span. He leaves lengthy, uninterrupted speeches in the final edit, some that last around 10 minutes. In certain cases it can grow wearying, such as when a Mexican woman recaps her ordeal crossing the American border. In other moments his patience pays off, such as when a Latino small business owner lays out the dangers of NYC’s Business Improvement District, a group of landlords raising rent in the neighbourhood in order to push out small business owners and make way for wealthier tenants and corporations.

In Jackson Heights gains its narrative arc in this focus on the gradual gentrification of the neighbourhood. In this focus, Wiseman never becomes preachy, avoiding any ideological slanting or political statements. But his editorial focus on the subject makes the film a useful primer on the challenges of gentrification and the need to support small business owners and tenants over landlords.

In Jackson Heights requires a lengthy investment of time and attention, but it’s also a holistic portrait of a fascinating neighbourhood.

8 out of 10

In Jackson Heights (2015, USA/France)

Directed by Frederick Wiseman.

This review was original published at the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.