At a time when America looks like it’s tearing apart at the seams, there’s something altogether reassuring — even downright inspiring — about Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary, City Hall, which chronicles municipal life in his old hometown of Boston.
Even a native New Yorker like myself, born and bred to despise Boston’s sports franchises, clean streets, comparatively lower crime rates and whiff of historical superiority, cannot deny how much Beantown impresses under Wiseman’s seasoned gaze, revealing sides of itself that few viewers outside the city may be aware of.
What we see is a medium-sized, multiethnic metropolis presided over by an inclusive Democratic mayor, Martin J. Walsh (or “Mahty Wahlsh,” as he pronounces it in a local accent worthy of the Kennedys and Mark Wahlberg), born to working-class immigrants and fully aware of the vital role they play in his city’s past, present and future. In a speech that closes out the movie, Walsh touts how he has “put social justice at the heart of our conversation” and built the “most diverse administration in Boston’s history.”
These words mean something nowadays, especially in what feels like an increasingly divided and unjust nation. But Wiseman, who at the age of 90 has delivered one of his most political films yet, has never been a director to take people purely at their word. In his sprawling body of work, which encompasses nearly 50 documentaries made in an array of public and private settings — schools, slaughterhouses, courts, parks, racetracks, missile silos, fishing ports, housing projects, welfare offices, libraries and hospices, to name a few — what matters is to actually show what people do, not just what they say. Wiseman’s movies are above all about the way our man-made institutions function — how citizens work in tandem to keep their society up and running.
Or, as Mayor Walsh puts it, “That’s democracy in action.” Indeed, watching City Hall is sort of like watching an uninterrupted 275 minutes (this is one of Wiseman’s longer works, in a filmography famous for its bladder-busting running times) of the C-SPAN channel, if C-SPAN were directed by an auteur with a sense for quotidian truth, beauty and the way people naturally perform when a camera intervenes in their daily lives: what they choose to reveal and not reveal. (I once attended a Wiseman master class at the Cinémathèque in Paris, now his adopted city, where, when asked what was the most important thing one needed to make documentaries, he simply answered: “A good bullshit detector.”)
In City Hall, the director/bullshit detector accompanies Walsh and other public employees as they strive to keep Boston afloat, and, even more so, to make it a better place to live. This task, like in many Wiseman films (State Legislature comes to mind), entails lots of scenes where officials discuss seemingly drab issues in drab-looking conference rooms, sometimes with the aid of PowerPoint.
And yet, there’s a method to all the mundanity, both structurally and politically. In the first instance, Wiseman, who edits his own material, often weeding down hundreds of hours of rushes to a two- to four-hour final cut, provides us an extremely clear path to understanding how a major city like Boston operates. He begins with a long discussion of the annual budget, replete with slides and graphs, and then for the rest of the movie we get to see how that $3.32 billion (in 2019) is spent, in “buckets” mostly covering education, public safety and city services. If you’re one of those people who like to complain about not knowing where your tax dollars go, then watch City Hall.
In political terms, Wiseman shapes his material to focus primarily on Boston’s working-class and minority populations, the latter whom, we learn, now make up, in fact, a majority (in 2019, 44.5 percent of the city was composed of “non-Hispanic whites”). There are no bankers, biotech engineers or baseball stars featured here, even if we do get to watch a Red Sox victory parade for the 2018 World Series, and then get it rubbed in our faces by Mayor Walsh that there’s basically a Red Sox victory parade each year.
City Hall delves deep into what a 21st century American city really looks like, with people of color holding a majority of public jobs and an increasing number of public positions, even if Walsh himself is white. (As the son of Irish immigrants, he reminds one audience that the Irish suffered a considerable amount of prejudice in their own right when they arrived in Boston during the mid-19th century.)
Many of the discussions captured by Wiseman involve how to better integrate and promote such communities, especially when it comes to public housing and job creation. “Are we going to make this a multicultural employment area?” one concerned resident asks the Chinese owners of a cannabis shop to be opened in the neighborhood of Dorchester. In another scene, a speaker — there are no titles in Wiseman films explaining who anyone is — explores an “ethnic strategy to wealth creation” regarding the city’s sizable Cape Verdean population. And in an earlier sequence where a couple weds at City Hall, Wiseman first shows us the public official conducting the ceremony, then cuts to reveal that she’s marrying two women.
Like the director’s New York-set In Jackson Heights, from 2015, City Hall is a paean to a place where folks from all parts of the world — “They feel like they never left their country,” is how the owner of a local supermarket chain appeals to customers — and from different sexual orientations manage to get together and make things happen. For all those people (you know who I’m talking about) trying to paint a picture of Democrat-run cities steeped in crime and chaos, Wiseman’s film provides extensive proof that not only is this untrue, but that places like Boston, where the pre-pandemic unemployment rate hovered around 2.5 percent, are in fact thriving.
Almost all the sequences in City Hall are filled with such positive vibes, with eager, hardworking people doing their best to make Boston what it is, whether they’re involved in garbage collection, fire safety inspection, traffic management, pruning trees or running the whole shebang. As unamusing and occasionally yawn-provoking as that sounds, there are always shades of humor in Wiseman’s vision of public affairs, and in this case the prize goes to a scene of Bostonians arguing their way out of parking tickets at City Hall — and actually getting away with it. Perhaps another reason to move to Beantown.
Yet of all the scenes in this 4.5-hour portrait of transparency and multiculturalism, the two most memorable involve locals gathered together in ceremony: the first, a group of former soldiers telling their harrowing war stories on Veterans Day; the second, the occasion of a speech by Mayor Walsh when the national anthem is performed by two members of the Boston Police Department. In both cases, the speakers and singers are white and Black; in the case of the cops, they’re also male and female. That these patriotic moments are the film’s emotional high points is hardly by accident. More than anything, Wiseman is showing us that we are watching not only Bostonians, but Americans too.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Zipporah Films, Puritan Films LLC
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Producers: Frederick Wiseman, Karen Konicek
Director of photography: John Davey
Editor: Frederick Wiseman
Sales: The Party Film Sales