«What if the great American novelist doesn’t write novels?» asked the title of a recent NY Times profile of legendary documentarian/US national treasure Frederick Wiseman. The piece was occasioned by the nonagenarian’s latest (45th!) masterwork City Hall, a mesmerizing opus – currently airing on PBS in the States – that unfolds over an addictive four-and-a-half-plus hours.
And as the film’s own title plainly implies, City Hall is an intricate study of on-the-ground government, in this case, that of the filmmaker’s hometown of Boston, where for the past six years Mayor Marty Walsh has been running the show (and I do mean show, as Wiseman’s theater directing background is forever evident in his framing of the world). In addition to Wiseman capturing Walsh’s daily humble routine, be it addressing his struggle with alcoholism at a veterans’ meeting or serving gravy to disabled workers at a Goodwill dinner (a stark contrast to President Trump’s busy schedule of bitching and moaning between rounds of golf), he also puts the «essential» and under-appreciated cogs in the machine front and center. Which culminates in something truly extraordinary – a cinematic celebration of bureaucracy at its best. Sure, democracy may be broken in DC, but at the local level, the myriad of public servants are certainly doing right by the rest of us.
City Hall is an intricate study of on-the-ground government
All of which is to say that for me City Hall managed to rebuild in four hours what the past four years had utterly destroyed – a sense of pride in my country. Indeed, Wiseman’s doc is a terrific distillation and redemption of American «exceptionalism,» a much-needed reminder that for its many faults, the United States is still the only country in the world in which people of every color and ethnicity living on its soil can be equally seen as «American.» Like the film’s director, the Boston-born son of (Jewish) immigrants, Mayor Walsh is similarly the Boston-born son of (Irish) immigrants – i.e., straight white men hailing from families once considered notches below white in our entrenched caste system. And as such, the progressive Massachusetts mayor – who worked his way up the blue-collar, labor union ladder and will soon be joining the presidential cabinet as the US’s next labor secretary – is keenly aware of both his privilege and his responsibility. It’s his duty not just to listen to constituents of every race, sexuality, ability, and creed – but to actually include this diverse citizenry in the decision-making process. For Mayor Walsh relinquishing power, sending the elevator back down, is actually a moral imperative. (The significance of which – in a city as famous for its long history of racism as it is for its World Series-winning baseball team – cannot be overstated.)
Microcosm of democracy
And as I watched this microcosm of democracy in action – seemingly mundane scenes such as a community meeting in which a Black woman in hijab voices concerns about a Vietnamese-American businessman’s medical marijuana dispensary opening in her neighborhood – I found my heart swelling with pride. I recalled that on these shores, asking «Where are you from?» usually refers to a question of city or state – rarely country. For here in the US, unless the person you’re addressing is speaking in heavily accented English, the presumption is that that individual is an American regardless of what they look like. Whereas when I travel overseas (or rather «traveled» overseas back in the good ole pre-pandemic days) to homogenous white-majority nations, I’m careful to tweak the query to «Are you from here?» when engaging with BIPOC. Why? Because as a white American (who like Wiseman is descended from once nonwhite Jewish immigrants) I’m fully cognizant of the fact that an assumption of belonging is a uniquely US thing, a quintessential quirk of this beautifully messy melting pot. And that, as Wiseman wondrously unspools in those novelistic images of City Hall, is the real American Dream.
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