Public Housing

Many would hand this prize to Hoop Dreams (1994) Steve James’s compassionate, heartbreaking, and finally inspirational story of two poor young men—one from West Garfield Park, the other from Cabrini-Green—who get the chance to pursue basketball careers at a Catholic prep school in Westchester. But three years after that film, the great documentary maker Frederick Wiseman delivered an even more stunning record of the city: Public Housing (1997), which immersed viewers in the grim and messily complex world of the Ida B. Wells housing project. Interviewed for the Boston Phoenix, Wiseman explained that he came here because “in my mind Chicago was synonymous with public housing. The Chicago Housing Authority . . . has always had difficulties, and what happens in Chicago has always been national news.” His purely observational movie—devoid of narration, talking heads, archival clips, or any other editorial frills—catalogs all the social ills that drove the city to close down Ida B. Wells in 2008. But Wiseman also captures a little community struggling to rescue itself, and the common heroism of its cops, social workers, and residents is ultimately more moving and respectful of the black underclass than the life-or-death lottery of sports stardom captured in the other film. —J.R. Jones