With PUBLIC HOUSING, Frederick Wiseman once again taps the core of topical social issues (race, poverty) and creates a dense, multilayered text. This documentary about a well-known federally funded living complex inspires debate over both form and content.
PUBLIC HOUSING takes place in and around the Ida B. Wells development in Chicago during a period of transition (a six-week period in 1995). As the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is taking over the facility from the Chicago Housing Authority, more economic opportunities
are being created, but government cutbacks always loom over the horizon.
The film focuses primarily on the residents, the administrators, the complex employees, and the Chicago Housing Authority police. The President of the Tenants Council, Helen Finner, fights on her office phone to get housing for a teenage mother. Two officers interrogate a woman who lingers around
a drug drop-off area. A group of men use an empty classroom to discuss their role-model status to the youth of the community. Two officers help a frightened elderly man move out of his apartment. Several residents gather for a meeting about starting up their own businesses. Nearby, outside, a
youth gang play cards.
Back in Helen Finner's office, an officer listens to Helen's complaints about gangs trying to intimidate her residents. At a meeting, a woman representing the Child Family Preservation Center explains her plan to keep poor families together. Outside, two officers chase two men they suspect of
carrying drugs, although they find nothing on them. Nearby, a few residents seem to be using and dealing drugs. In an office, a social worker interviews a drug user to determine his qualifications for treatment. Another social worker meets with several young women about their recent efforts to get
off welfare and find jobs. At a sewing circle, some elderly women enjoy each other's company.
Returning to the classroom, several teenagers read about and discuss the issue of child abuse. Another class centers around sex education and young motherhood. Outside, children and adults dance during a birthday party celebration. Back in the classroom, a visiting speaker preaches against alcohol
and drugs. At a child development center, a puppet show reinforces the same message to a younger group. Finally, at the Robert Taylor Holmes High School, a special guest speaker, Ron Carter, the former basketball star and current special assistant at HUD, encourages the students to use HUD
subsidies to start-up their own businesses and create enterprise zones as a way out of the public-housing prison.
Frederick Wiseman's documentaries (e.g., HIGH SCHOOL, WELFARE, ZOO) favor a building-block approach to a better understanding of institutional conditions that are usually ignored or taken for granted. At the same time, Wiseman's films neither offer obvious solutions to social problems nor overtly
advocate a particular point of view. Thus, by the end of PUBLIC HOUSING, one's preconceptions about such topics as welfare, racial discrimination, unemployment, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and modern-day "ghetto" life may be as much confirmed as challenged. In a way, how effective the film is
depends on the open-mindedness of the viewer, for PUBLIC HOUSING, like all Wiseman's works, is something of a cinematic ink-blot test.
While it's true that Wiseman passes up the opportunity to advance a political agenda, PUBLIC HOUSING succeeds by confronting viewers with questions that they must consider themselves (e.g., Can enterprise zones, an idea advanced by conservative politicians, really work for people abandoned by and
segregated from society? How will the residents of the Ida B. Wells complex ever escape from the cycle of poverty and despair?) Wiseman recognizes, even emphasizes, the contradictions of the situations by contrasting scenes of hope (the classroom discussions, the community meetings) with scenes of
despair (the police interrogations, the drug busts). Yet, even within these scenes, there are mixed messages (the lecturers warning of budget cuts in the meetings, the police acting as helpful guardians). What should be an inspirational ending--Ron Carter's "enterprise zone" lecture--becomes
uncertain, possibly bleak (one student is caught napping by John Davey's camera).
PUBLIC HOUSING is a difficult work to fully embrace. Determined by its form, there is, at times, too much of an ethnographic distance between the viewer and the film's participants. Still, few films have so fully explored the issue of urban poverty and its repercussions on society. Viewing and
discussing the film might even create a new level of discourse on the topic. (Adult situations, substance abuse, profanity.)
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- Released: 1997
- Rating: NR
- Review: With PUBLIC HOUSING, Frederick Wiseman once again taps the core of topical social issues (race, poverty) and creates a dense, multilayered text. This documentary about a well-known federally funded living complex inspires debate over both form and content.… (more)