If you watch enough cop shows or movies, you might think you know something about life in American ghettos, even if you've never set foot in one. But the more preconceptions you have about housing projects, the more Frederick Wiseman’s 1997 film is likely to surprise you.
Filming in the Ida B. Wells projects, a combination of high-rise, low-rise and medium-rise buildings with an emphasis on the low, Wiseman and longtime cameraman John Davey shot their film the year after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) took over control of the projects from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). Public Housing never mentions that changing of the guard, but Ron Carter, a former NBA star turned HUD economic development expert, functions as one of its two magnetic poles. Carter preaches a gospel of energetic self-improvement, offering himself—the product of a Pittsburgh housing project—as an example.
If Carter is the film’s North Pole, resident council president Helen Finner is the South. A self-promoting but apparently effective advocate for her fellow residents, Finner loves to fight for their rights, one case at a time, against the system she sees as the enemy. When Carter suggests that Ida B. Wells’ residents create a company to maintain their elevators, adding that any company that hires mostly residents is guaranteed a contract with the housing authority, Finner scoffs. We’ve been promised things like that before, she says, and they never delivered.
Carter and Finner are just two of the film’s many authority figures— including teachers, social workers, cops, and a warmly sympathetic nun. They’re an impressive bunch, their sensitivity, respect, and genuine concern for the residents infusing Public Housing with a sense of brotherhood and human dignity. Nothing I’ve ever seen about cops working in poor neighborhoods prepared me for the moment when a woman waiting to buy drugs on a street corner thanks a CHA cop for trying to chase her off. In a long exchange that sounds like a big brother’s lecture, he starts by telling her she’s getting on his last nerve before working his way around to urging her to stop doing drugs—for her own sake and soon, because “You still got a little bit of beauty in you... I’m gonna remember you,” he says. “You’re gonna be my special project. Every time I see you, I’m gonna pull over.”
The sincerity of the cop’s concern is clear, and so is the fact that it may not be enough. The same is true in a mesmerizing scene between a deeply empathetic intake counselor and the sad-eyed user whose history he is taking. After probing the man’s psyche with delicate precision, the counselor declares him sincere and ready for the hard work of rehab. It’s a shining example of the system at work—or would be, if the counselor didn’t then add that there’s no guarantee the man will get into rehab just because he needs and wants it.
Another roadblock facing the film’s social servants is the passive resistance of many of the residents, whose capacity to hope and dream has apparently been snuffed. In one darkly funny sequence, a well-meaning woman delivers a detailed, animated lecture to a group of young women about how to use male and female condoms—while facing the stony faces of the girls and fighting to be heard over the cries of the babies many of them are already tending.
As always, Wiseman uses no voiceover, title cards, or other authorial devices to impose an agenda on the footage he finds. Instead, a series of long shots give characters and stories time to reveal themselves, while snippets of street scenes between the set pieces help establish the context. The film’s meditative pace and long (200-minute) running time open up space for the viewer’s own thoughts.
I don’t what you’ll think while you watch Public Housing, but I kept being reminded of the legacy of slavery, which is present in the residents’ plantation-like relationship with the government that keeps them housed, fed, and dependent and in the learned helplessness or cynicism that makes many of the residents so impassive. I wondered what allows some people to transcend dehumanizing treatment while others give up and give in. And I felt deeply grateful to all the kind and caring people whose gallantry reminded me that altruism, community spirit, and simple decency are a lot more common in real life than they are in the stories we tell ourselves.