Richard Nixon said a lot of horrible racist things, and horrible non-racist things, but it seems like people are most fond of digging up this treasure of The Tapes: “I have the greatest affection for them [blacks], but I know they’re not going to make it for 500 years. They aren’t. You know it, too. The Mexicans are a different cup of tea. They have a heritage. At the present time they steal, they’re dishonest, but they do have some concept of family life. They don’t live like a bunch of dogs, which the Negroes do live like.”
Harsh to be sure, even if he is fond of “them.” But one wonders how far off the mark his prediction really was. You might even argue that the departure of those black people who have overcome stark disadvantage with exceptional talent, intelligence and/or drive to move from the margins and into the mainstream, has pushed the timeline for the rest of them to “make it” back a couple hundred years more, as the most stable members of the community, quite reasonably, launch their escape pods at the first opportunity, leaving the rest of the group structure weakened. Those who have spent a significant amount of time around the poorer black American communities, and who profess to believe that blacks, in general, might obtain a lifestyle on par with whites, in general, within the lifetime of anybody currently drawing breath are either 1) Actually delusional 2) Lying 3) Believe that something really terrible is going to happen to white America or 4) Believe that science will enable us to live to see Nixon’s 500 year forecast come to fruition.
I don’t think this is the message Frederick Wiseman wants us to take away from Public Housing. If you don’t know, he is famously of the old school of non-intrusive documentary filmmaking, so we’re fortunate that no “message” is too obvious. It doesn’t get any more heavy-handed than the recurring footage of a dreary ice cream truck that brings to mind the absence of the joy normally associated with ice cream trucks and the difficult realities of local entrepreneurship, which is touted as the golden path throughout the film. So really, we see nothing more than expertly selected footage from the projects, and the footage is methodically depressing. You can assign any combination of mechanisms to the sad interactions Wiseman captures: poverty traps, cultural breakdown, “black nihilism,” and even some of the tenets of white supremacy, if that’s your bag. The problems and the barriers facing the residents of Chicago public housing in 1997 seem intractable. And while the explanations for the intractability range from the high-minded and compassionate to the vile, they are all posited as explanations of why the problems are intractable, or nearly so. No one even bothers to suggest that a solution is around the corner.
In some ways, the reality faced by poor blacks is even bleaker than the picture Wiseman provides. It isn’t that Wiseman tries to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. He is focusing on the people working to build up their community in general and a housing project in particular. He is looking at institutional realities, showing us individuals working hard within institutions and how little fruit their labor produces. We only get a slight glimpse of the depths of the self-destructiveness and ignorance that are commonplace in such communities. The film focuses instead on the disconnect between the programs and systems intended to help and the people they are meant to help. And maybe the unfairness of the expectations placed on those who are in need, or possibly lost.
One scene that stood out as a emblematic comes when the HUD workers hold a meeting with residents to discuss making improvements. Tenants complain that some of the lighting in the projects is frequently out. They seem to initially blame HUD for this. Is it too much to ask that we have some decent lighting at night? The HUD worker agrees that this is a problem, but points out what “we all know.” The reason for the regular loss of lighting is obviously vandalism. The meeting grows silent. The only suggestion is a new system of lights that are essentially unbreakable. But they are expensive and will take a nice slice out of the budget, which is always shrinking as it is. There isn’t really a good solution to the problem– not to the problem of getting more kids to graduate college– the problem of having reasonable lighting in the projects. Other battles range from the prevalence of vermin to the fact that mere paperwork stands between hundreds of long-vacant government units and members of the growing homeless population, but nothing budges. Well, that’s not entirely true. We do see a confused old man being forced from his old project home. There are no immediate plans on where he is to live now, beyond “a shelter.” And yes, that is a grape soda he has in the picture. Don’t pretend that it didn’t occur to you.
At the most basic level, the disconnect seems to be that thoughtful, well-organized people who work for the government establish techniques based on their own M.O.s to aid dysfunctional, unstable people. Lest you conclude that I’m being racist (for the few that haven’t already done so), let me state for the record that I am worthless. I have to ramp up my self-motivation to the maxtreme of self-empowerment to fulfill my will to remember to remind my bride to pay the parking tickets that I accumulate. Had I been born into the projects, I’d never have connected with these programs either. This is a case of the dictatorship of the responsible in our society: an apartheid privileging those who enjoy having their forms filled out and wiggle their little butts with joy at the chance to present proper insurance and registration. As Travolta in Pulp Fiction thought the chance for retribution would have actually made the vandalism of his car worthwhile, the over-responsible live for the day when their home is broken into or damaged and they can break out their full homeowners insurance with no deductible and their meticulous photographs of everything in the house worth more than $12. But the fact of the matter is that Flanderses cannot just coach Homers into becoming Flanderses.
And in so many cases in Public Housing, it seems like the responsible are setting up systems that make sense to them, meant to guide people like me. But I’d rather die in the gutter than have to attend government meetings and fill out forms just to get decent lighting on my street. Is it reasonable to ask students to take what seem to be extra classes after high school, just so they can graduate with what would be considered a 9th grade education in the middle class? Sure, one in a hundred rises above it all out of exceptional talent and will. But what is to become of the merely average student, crammed into schools that don’t teach because too many students are far below average and despise learning? Then, more extra classes, more programs, more forms… just to find a job. How many of us who coasted through college on suds and wandered into a job at the first place hiring can really say we’d be willing to deal with sign-ups, wait lists, workshops and deadlines based on the hope of scoring a temporary gig at minimum wage plus a buck? Maybe we grow up enough by the time we reach middle age that we can drag the carcasses of our useless kids through the system so that they might one day do the same for theirs (as our parents did for us), but what would most of us have done if we were not part of this middle-class cycle, if we didn’t know our fathers and our mothers were less than 20 years older than us?
The usual threats of murder, prostitution, drugs, gangs, AIDS, teenage pregnancy and prison are present, but are never the centerpiece. Again, Public Housing is more about the institution and the relationship people have with it. Maybe the reality of immobility: that most of us will stay withing throwing distance of the station to which we were born, regardless of if we are Flanderses or Homers. For the thinking viewer, this is even more disheartening than another drive-by. We see people who care begging for simple work orders to be filled out, or explaining sexual responsibility as emphatically as possible to small groups of blank faces. Cops try seemingly random searches and threats. They try reaching out on a personal level. But they always seem resigned. The world of Public Housing is nothing close to hell on earth, like say, City of God, but it certainly doesn’t look like the first world, either. It doesn’t look like anything can really fix it and the only cause for optimism in the film is that some are willing to fight for minor victories. Good luck with that…