Urban Democracy’s Documentarian

How to explain the miracle of an institution as gargantuan, complex, and pivotal to society as “government”? Watch Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall.

Boston’s City Hall—that infamous, polarizing, and imposing brutalist seat of the city’s government—has loomed over the downtown area since 1968. In making a film about such a place, a less thoughtful director than the famed documentarian Frederick Wiseman would waste time fetishizing the building’s distinct physical form and concrete clinicality. Thankfully, Wiseman opts instead to humanize the city hall, showing us the astonishingly diverse set of activities completed within its beige walls each day. As marriages are officiated upstairs, Bostonians challenge parking tickets in the basement, and press conferences rattle through its auditoriums, the building—under Wiseman’s curious eye—appears as a buzzing beehive of life and public administration. Replete with crowded rooms and austere, labyrinthine halls, the building eventually embraces Wiseman’s camera, offering itself as a home base and warm reprieve from the New England cold. As we watch the dim sunset light its windows, and night fall over its jagged exterior, the building reveals its wondrous dynamism. In the process, we come to understand how the decisions made inside the building will affect the lives of Bostonians outside it.

It is often said that the films of Wiseman are a “celebration of democracy.” City Hall, his new four-and-a-half hour epic about the inner workings of Boston city government, is certainly no exception. But to describe his films as merely an homage to democracy and institutions is only part of the story: for as much as they affectionately linger on management conferences, legislative sessions, and town halls, Wiseman’s films also illuminate the dire conditions on the ground to which democracy ostensibly responds.

Wiseman’s subjects exist in the real world, and therefore contend with the myriad aspects of American society that are decidedly undemocratic: systemic racism, poverty, police brutality, and the prison industrial complex, to name only a few. Now, with City Hall, Wiseman offers what is perhaps his most expansive and dense exploration of these familiar themes; meanwhile, the fraught history and uncertain future of his native Boston, Massachusetts, hovers over the film’s bureaucrats and constituents throughout.

Thanks to Wiseman’s thoughtful editing and the film’s colossal length, City Hall succeeds as an appropriately holistic depiction of government and its broad responsibilities. And while government professionals are given their day in the sun, Wiseman affords similar attention to the thousands of blue-collar workers, who are arguably more crucial to the city’s day-to-day functionality. In a surprisingly poetic sequence, we watch as Department of Sanitation workers make their rounds, shoving fallen tree limbs and discarded mattresses into the jaws of a waste collection truck. While such valorization of sanitation workers could be patronizing or cloying in lesser hands, Wiseman’s gaze is genuinely dignifying. Without the aid of voiceover narration, music, or interviews, he is able to remind us that a functioning city is but a collage of such unacknowledged, unglamorous services like trash collection, made possible by the tireless grunt labor of individuals.

Somehow, in an age of deep political intensity and disagreement, Wiseman has managed to make an epic political film that is unlikely to elicit ideological responses. The major takeaways from City Hall do not come from the policies of the government within the city hall. Instead, one leaves the film more cognizant of the miraculousness and seeming impossibility of the continued existence of an institution as gargantuan, complex, and pivotal to society as government. With the panoramic scope of Boston City Hall’s responsibilities on display, Wiseman offers a cohesive summation of its invaluable contributions to its constituents.

A towering, late-career triumph, City Hall reads like the glorious culmination of the increasingly overt fascination with cities that has defined Wiseman’s work. The film’s synthesis of personal, human realities and the institutional processes that seek to improve them offers a potent opportunity for urbanists, scholars, and policymakers to reconsider the urban condition, the relationship of the state to the people, and the strengths and limitations of the democratic process.

It is difficult to overstate what a unique figure Wiseman is in the cinematic world. His first film was the hotly contested Titicut Follies, a 1967 documentary about a correctional center for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Shot and edited in Wiseman’s trademark “direct cinema” style, the film eschews the exposition, interviews, narration, and other manipulations that typically define the genre. Instead, Wiseman simply films, like a fly on the wall. The result in this debut is a shocking and visceral portrait of the institutional rot, abuse, and negligence lurking in the state facility.

In the half century plus between Titicut Follies and City Hall, Wiseman has applied this direct-cinema approach to dozens of social institutions, many of them chiefly related to cities, their public institutions, and their future. His 1968 follow-up, High School, focused on the pedagogical failures and culture of repression at a public school in Philadelphia. In 1969, he released Law and Order, a blistering exposé of the Kansas City Police Department. Central Park (1989) saw Wiseman examining the daily use of New York City’s most famous public space, and the overwhelming work done by the NYC Parks Department and volunteers to maintain it. Public Housing, from 1997, focuses on the residents of Chicago’s Ida B. Wells houses and their struggle to improve their surroundings amid a climate of civic neglect and hyper-policing.

One can’t help but see Wiseman’s previous films everywhere in contemporary urban American life. A disturbing sequence in Law and Order—where a white police officer chokes a Black sex worker—is made all the more powerful when you realize it is one of the earliest examples of police brutality documented on film. As police violence and racism have sent millions of protestors into the streets of all major American cities in recent years, Wiseman’s pioneering work stands as a blunt and sadly necessary reminder that these horrors predate camera phones.

For more than 50 years, Wiseman has offered the world resolute and unflinching portraits of itself: compelling us all to reckon with the structures that define and exert control over our lives.

Wiseman also has a genuine claim to being an elder statesman in the canon of urbanist cinema, having taken his microscope to individual city agencies for decades. Shot in the late 1980s, Central Park offers a fascinating insight into the changing dynamics of urban governance and public space at the time. Set amid a key era in the ascendance of Reaganite neoliberalism in American life, the film sees growing tensions between government bureaucrats and the wealthy, newly muscular Central Park Conservancy, as well as its politically connected Upper East Side donors. Filmed just four years after the Union Square Partnership ushered in a new era of public-private partnerships in New York City,1 Central Park allows viewers to sit back and watch as the monied private sector slowly but surely encroaches upon the public commons.

Once again, however, Wiseman doesn’t show us this transformation solely through Parks Department conferences and community-board meetings, but also through intimate observations of park users. We watch as homeless people are pushed aside to tidy up the park for tourists, and activists are reprimanded for selling “Make Love Not War” pins, all while corporations set up recruitment posts on parkland.

Here, we look on at the privatization of public space unfolding before our very eyes. Given the several privately operated, non–Parks Department public spaces springing up along the Brooklyn waterfront, and the rise of luxury consumption-oriented landscapes like Hudson Yards, it is clear that Wiseman understood the significance of this urban transformation over 30 years ago. Fortunately for us all, he was there to document it.

More recently, Wiseman chose to investigate not a park or a service, but a whole neighborhood. His 2015 In Jackson Heights is a rich, 190-minute ode to the Queens neighborhood of New York City, said to be the most ethnically diverse community in the world. While Wiseman spends much of the film observing the institutions that help maintain the delicate balance of the neighborhood’s cultural heterogeneity, his interest lies just as much in the individual experiences of its residents.

Many scenes take place in the Queens outpost of the immigrant-rights nonprofit Make the Road. While we are witnesses to the organization’s meetings and planning sessions, Wiseman focuses on heartbreaking stories of wage theft, discrimination, and harassment told by immigrant workers and trans women of color. The “climax” of In Jackson Heights, if such a film can be said to have a climax, is a genuinely riveting discussion about the threat of gentrification posed by a planned business-improvement district in the neighborhood.

Made over several decades, Wiseman’s films now together provide a vivid, often prophetic history of American cities in the second half of the 20th century—culminating beautifully in the pièce de résistance that is City Hall. As Wiseman shows us the daily minutiae of Boston police officers, families strolling across the greens of Boston Common, and housing inspectors testing the code compliance of condo-construction sites, there is a bittersweet sensation of familiarity—as if an old master is playing the hits for us, except slower and more wistfully.

Fortunately, in documenting sensitive and complex subjects, Wiseman’s films tend to act in refreshingly good faith about communities and institutional actors. City Hall, in particular, evinces deep compassion for the men and women of Boston’s city government. Unlike the timeworn public-servant hagiography of, say, The West Wing, Wiseman does not dote on any of these people. Nor does he attempt to imbue them with a hokey sense of technocratic benevolence. Instead, Wiseman simply gives them the benefit of the doubt, and edits his footage so that it is fair to their intentions.

It is in this way that Wiseman combines a journalistic ethics of accuracy and accountability with the judiciousness of a professor of law, which he was for many years before becoming a director. This scholarly background informs the detail-oriented and principled perspectives of his films. While Wiseman himself would be the first to say his films are not—and, inherently, cannot be—“objective,”2 they consistently pursue truth tenaciously and honorably.

This good-faith approach feels particularly reinvigorating in City Hall, given its political subject matter. After four years of the incompetent malignancy of the Trump administration, City Hall can’t help but remind us of the virtues of government done well. That the film focuses on the civic, rather than national, level also offers a great opportunity for reflection. Because urbanites often speak of their local representatives in a disaffected and somewhat cynical manner—doubting the sincerity of their intentions and assuming a level of stereotypical government incompetence and waste—there is something heartwarming about watching people with hard, important jobs trying their best, regardless of their challenges.

In the popular discourse surrounding city halls across the country, no position is as thankless and no figure is as commonly loathed as the mayor. Hating the mayor is becoming a pastime in major American cities. In fact, as cultural tensions heat up and the country becomes more divided, pillorying the mayor of one’s city increasingly looks like the only thing that can unite deeply divided populations. It is therefore remarkable that City Hall works as well as it does: stepping back from the political persona of its central subject and centering the daily work of a mayor.

Standing at the center of the film is Boston mayor Marty Walsh, who was recently confirmed by the Senate as the US secretary of labor. Over the course of the film, we see the wide spectrum of responsibilities his job entails, from exciting ceremonial addresses to uneventful policy meetings.

A recurring theme in Walsh’s work—as seen in the various meetings he takes with the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People during the film—is combatting the legacy of racism that haunts Boston to this day. Given that the city can be a punchline for its fraught legacies of racial segregation and busing, it is profound to see the degree to which anti-racist efforts, no matter their immediate outcome, occupy the agenda and priorities of its mayor. Furthermore, the ethnically diverse civil servants and residents of Boston shown in the film beautifully help defy the city’s inaccurate reputation of being predominantly white. In fact, amid his younger, variegated staff, Walsh—a white man from scrappy, working-class Dorchester—almost seems like an anachronism from the quickly disappearing Boston of yore.

“City Hall” is a celebration of democracy, but it is also a celebration of cities, the people who work to maintain them, and the gorgeous mosaics of life that they can be at their best.

By all accounts, Walsh is a standard 21st-century neoliberal American mayor. During his time governing one of the fastest-gentrifying cities in the United States, he has pursued a standard agenda of economic development in Boston, aggressively attempting to court events like the Olympics and the IndyCar Grand Prix, as well as exploitative tech companies like Amazon, through giveaways and tax incentives.3 In February 2015, Walsh’s government deployed prison laborers to clean up the snow on the streets and the MBTA train tracks, paying them under 50 cents an hour.4 His police department has undergone a years-long coordinated crackdown on independent-music venues, practically dealing a death blow to Boston’s cultural options for the young and broke.5

While the prospect of spending a film—a 275-minute film at that—with such a figure may alienate some and confuse others, City Hall somehow manages to endear us to Walsh, or, at least, to the myriad difficulties he faces in his position. In scenes where Walsh takes questions at town halls, Wiseman elegantly conveys both the magnitude and complexity of his office, as well as the frustrating limitations on its power. “We have to look legislatively at fixing that,” says Walsh in some form or another several times to concerned constituents, beautifully emphasizing the word “legislatively” with his thick Dorchester Irish accent. What Walsh means is that, while he is often able to, for instance, refer seniors to the services of Boston’s city-run Elderly Commission (officially called the Age Strong Commission) for help with accessing medication, there are just as many problems that his office cannot solve without support in Congress.

“Our job is to represent and support the people of Boston,” says Walsh at one point in the film. “That’s our job … And when you’re a public employee, you have a responsibility for that.” This much, as Wiseman shows us in the film, is undeniably true.


Can Smart Cities Be Equitable Cities?

By Burcu Baykurt

As he has done with American cities for over half a century, Wiseman tips his hat to Boston in City Hall, documenting and articulating the massive undertaking that is its continued management. He generously invites us into the public square as seen through his inquisitive lens.

What adds a special layer of poignancy to this film, however, is its elegant retrospective take on topics that have defined Wiseman’s remarkable career. For more than 50 years, Wiseman has offered the world resolute and unflinching portraits of itself: compelling us all to reckon with the structures that define and exert control over our lives. While he has been described as a cinematic journalist of sorts, Wiseman has now lived long enough to see himself become a historian—his first drafts of history now enlightening primary-source documents.

And so, with its epic scale and the wise outlook of its filmmaker, City Hall really is a celebration of democracy. But it is also a celebration of so much more: cities, the people who work to maintain them, and the gorgeous mosaics of life that they can be at their best.


This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonickicon

  1. Sharon Zukin, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  2. Rich Juzwiak, “‘It’s Impossible to Be Objective’: An Interview with Frederick Wiseman,” Gawker, November 8, 2013.
  3. Melina Delkic, “Boston Mayor Marty Walsh Wants Amazon, Despite Past Failures,” Newsweek, September 13, 2017.
  4. Eric Levenson, “Low on Resources, Boston Turns to Prison Labor to Shovel Snow,” Boston.com, February 17, 2015.
  5. Luke O’Neil, “Boston Punk Zombies Are Watching You!,” Slate, March 29, 2013.
Featured image: Still from City Hall (2020). IMDb