Thursday, January 28, 2021

City Hall





Director/editor/producer Frederick Wiseman



CITY HALL               B                                                                                                                USA  (272 mi)  2020  d:  Frederick Wiseman

The people who work for the city work for you.  They’re there to service you.                    —Marty Walsh, Boston mayor

Listed #1 in the Top 10 Films of 2020 by Cahiers du Cinéma (Cahiers du Cinéma Reveals Their Top 10 Films of 2020 ...), currently available for free viewing in its entirety on PBS (, shot in the pre-Covid era of 2018 and 2019, Wiseman spent ten hours shooting, all compiled into a four and one-half hour film that examines Boston’s Democratic mayor Marty Walsh, an Irish Catholic, the central figure of the film, and his various legislative bodies in public meetings as they attempt to identify problems and outline solutions, where government’s primary function is to serve its constituents, making sure needed services are accessible and provided in a timely manner, whether it be immigrant groups, veterans, substance abuse, the disabled, or the elderly.  Questions are taken, with the mayor encouraging residents to take advantage of government liaisons who are specifically chosen to be their spokesperson in government, maintaining contact with ordinary citizens, identifying scams against the elderly, encouraging them to contact the police for follow-up, as the only real protection is an open and transparent system designed specifically to help them.  Like a civics class in grade school, the film is really a portrait of democracy at work, where the various government departments each reach out to their own constituents, maintain a two-way dialogue, with the mayor acknowledging the importance of the meetings, where personal stories take center stage, humanizing what they do, where each is encouraged to participate, provide their own story, and be part of the overall solution where they all work together to solve common problems.  Perhaps the biggest lesson is that no one is alone, as everyone’s connected by a phone call or an email, with someone on the other end of the line devoted to help them.  It’s an encouraging look, almost always a positive spin, because the city of Boston is not too big, and has not been devastated by financial shortfalls, like many other major urban American cities that are largely underfunded.  Just under the surface, and never really adequately addressed, is Boston’s notorious history of racism, especially with their sports franchises, with the Boston Red Sox the very last baseball team to integrate blacks into baseball, where Boston sports fans are known for making blistering racial outbursts, with many black athletes acknowledging being uncomfortable whenever they play in Boston.  Even the legendary Bill Russell, winner of 11 NBA titles, was called every nasty racial slur imaginable while playing for the Boston Celtics, revealing he learned to block that out, playing for the team, not the fans, and ended up refusing to sign autographs as a result. 

In a blistering economic appraisal, however, it was discovered that 55% of Boston residents are non-white, 28% are foreign-born, coming from 150 different countries of origin, where immigrants own 33% of city businesses.  According to the Brookings Institute, Boston is ranked #1 in terms of income inequality in the entire United States.  In the Federal Reserve Bank’s “Color of Wealth” report, the first to break down net worth by ethnic groups, the median net worth of black families in Boston is a mere $8 dollars, while the median net worth of white families is $247,000, an astounding difference.  How does this happen?  In reviewing various Boston employers, many still require a bachelor’s degree for 100% of all job applicants, in all positions, skilled and non-skilled, professional and non-professional,  By elevating the employment qualifications, employers not only discourage but disqualify otherwise eligible minority applicants, which sounds very much like the arbitrary standards used in the Jim Crow South to exclude blacks from voting.  Looking around the country, that’s not the normal reality anywhere else.   Boston has a peculiar ban on deficit spending, effectively capping city hall’s budget, which minimizes their expenditures, with the largest income source coming from property taxes, which allows for annual growth.  San Francisco, by contrast, is a city of similar population size, around 7 or 800,000, but more than double the budget.  There’s a public meeting with Cruz Construction Company, a minority non-profit that does outreach with youth, offering computer training while also serving as mentors, identifying the wealth gap between black and white families, with an average white family earning $275,000 to a black family’s $750, resulting in increased minority hiring as well as minority companies doing business with the city.  Community activists accentuate their role, claiming community benefits should be determined and driven by the community, and not the developer.  But what becomes patently clear is that money talks, so it’s actually the developers who have final say, as they’re devising the plans, constructing the buildings, and changing the look of the neighborhoods without much interference, whether it helps the community or not.  So much for democracy and community input.

Curiously, Boston, which has a black population of 24%, has never elected a black mayor, so the perception of racism persists.  Denver, by contrast, with a black population of only 10 or 11%, has elected two black mayors, as well as a Mexican-American.  Both are Democratic strongholds.  In the 1970’s, Denver and Boston were the first northern cities that federal courts ordered to desegregate public schools, prompting opposition from white critics of “forced busing,” where the reaction in Boston was violent, broader, and lasted longer, with children pelted with eggs, bricks, and bottles, and police in combat gear fought to control angry white protesters besieging the schools.  It wasn’t until black parents paired with white affluent suburbanites from seven different communities, sending their kids outside the city, that any peace prevailed.  Despite the rosy economic growth of the city, and the promises of better things to come, one lingering fact the city has not addressed is that one in six residents is still struggling for food.  Somewhat surprisingly, there’s very little public criticism of the current city administration, with no spokesperson from the opposing political party and no newspaper critique challenging their actions, allowing the mayor to pretty much dominate the film with his unchallenged assertions, putting his positive spin on things, and rarely holding the city accountable for its sins of the past, like avoiding the toxic influence of the Catholic Church cover up in very public sex abuse scandals highlighted in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015).  In terms of the unfathomable median net worth disparity, the mayor simply says they’re not proud of that, offering diversity aims when it comes to city business, but never effectively reigns in private industry which has a free hand to continue racial exclusion.  The film shies away from these details, for some reason, but continues to show the city from the mayor’s viewpoint, offering a sunny outlook, where he’s always got his own personal stamp when it comes to confessing his own story, a recovering alcoholic for more than 20 years, a child cancer survivor, where these personal details are his way of politicking, as it only adds to the humanization of his appeal.  But we never hear a contrasting voice of opposition who doesn’t feel things are going swimmingly. 

An example of late-stage Wiseman, now 90-years old, no longer just long uninterrupted takes with no commentary or narration, no music (other than street sounds), and no editorializing, but interspersed throughout are a few short transitional shots of the city’s architecture shot by John Davey, becoming a prominent feature, both in city buildings but also neighborhood homes.  Easily the most contentious scene comes when an Asian-American store owner seeks approval for a cannabis dispensary in a public meeting in Dorchester, the poorest and most racially diverse neighborhood in the city, already overwhelmed by crime and high incarceration rates, where the black residents, which include a large population of transplanted Cape Verdean Islanders who speak Portuguese, are openly suspicious, despite apparent good intentions by the owners, that this doesn’t exactly serve the community’s interests or needs, largely appealing to people from outside Dorchester, but may instead add to a series of unanticipated problems, as there’s already too much congestion and no place to park, police protection is stretched to the limits, and Asians don’t have a history of employing blacks in their business.  When raising their concerns, showing surprising depth and analytic detail, reflecting the views of a community that’s been overlooked and underserved, with few opportunities for black employment or advancement, the Asian owners try to counter their concerns, sounding like both sides are actually listening to one another, suggesting they will mentor blacks from the community not just in jobs but in positions of importance within the company.  Amazingly, the community activists are directly asking how this change will actually help and benefit the surrounding community, but it’s all just talk, as the community has no ability to vote up or down on the issue, as instead it’s all part of the city process of mandatory open public meetings prior to opening the business, where reports of the community input discussion will be sent to city hall for evaluation, but the city has the final word in dispensing licenses for these highly lucrative employers, where property, unfortunately, takes precedence over people.  More importantly, the city expresses no interest in relaxing the cannabis possession laws, freeing non-violent prisoners, or otherwise addressing the needs of people of color who have been blatantly targeted by racially oppressive drug-enforcement policies. 

The surprising real talk from black community residents is one of the few sequences in the entire film that isn’t filled with bureaucratic speak, as the film is heavy on city department meetings and mayoral speeches before various community groups.  Yet what’s perhaps most surprising is how the interest of the status quo continually gets authorized, with very little, if any, real social change ever enacted.  Nothing is done to address the high school-to-prison pipeline, black incarceration, police brutality complaints, social justice concerns, high crime, or address any of the racial disparities, where the film, despite its length, simply looks the other way and instead shows a city with good intentions.  Much like the recent Steve James documentary of Chicago, City So Real - made for TV (2020), the mayor in each film is given the role of the film’s central figure, where they are allowed to set their own agenda and frame it in a way that is favorable to them, as we never learn whether any of these discussed projects ever gets finished, while businesses are free to basically do what they want, regardless of gentrification concerns or community opposition, unrestricted by bureaucratic red tape, never providing the transparency needed or desired, with unanswered questions continually surrounding their mega-projects.  That’s just how business works in big cities, so long as they don’t get caught in criminal behavior.  The film hones in on a variety of city services, such as the performances of marriages at city hall, the 311 phone operators listening to non-emergency requests for something that needs to be taken care of, snow and sanitation removal, an on-site building inspector thoroughly doing his job, a rat exterminator, tree trimmers, roads are repaved, a camera surveillance system that evaluates traffic conditions, even identifying a double-parked car, sending a police crew out immediately, while also supporting cultural events, like the celebrations surrounding Chinese New Year.  Even a few people challenging the issuance of traffic tickets were successful in overturning their convictions, with the cameras chronicling police precinct meetings before they hit the streets.  The film just follows the mayoral lead, including the celebratory pomp and circumstance associated with the largely white city victory parades (surprisingly singing Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline after a World Series win), various luncheons for special interests, and many, many speeches, all wrapped in the American flag as proud examples of American democracy at work, with a military color guard and two uniformed policemen singing the national anthem as a duet before an invited gathering at a state of the city address where the mayor regales about the possibility of four more years.  

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