PUBLIC HOUSING documents daily life at the Ida B. Wells public housing development in Chicago. The film illustrates some of the experiences of people living in conditions of extreme poverty. Events shows include the work of the tenants council, street life, the role of police, job training programs, drug education, teenage mothers, dysfunctional families, elderly residents, nursery school and after school teenage programs and the activities of the city, state and federal governments in maintaining and changing public housing.
In PUBLIC HOUSING, [Wiseman] has a superabundance of articulate, dramatic, stressed-out subjects. Wherever he points the camera, there is another confrontation between the lower-class, black inhabitants of the projects and the middle-class, mostly black professionals who are there to serve them, help them get on their feet, and, incidentally, police them. Again and again one is struck by the goodwill, resourcefulness, and genuine care shown by the social workers, cops, teachers, nuns, and sex education advisors for their often passive, resigned, rebellious, stoned, felonious charges. Again and again one is made to feel the distance between problems and solutions.
–Philip Lopate, Film Comment
…Wiseman salts his film with example after example of pride and enterprise. For every long-lens shot of men on the corner snorting cocaine, there are shots of chess games, sewing circles and laundry hung lovingly on the line. For every bureaucratese-speaking clerk from CHA, there is a sympathetic plumber or a roach exterminator who can’t do enough for an appreciative tenant.… Frederick Wiseman… has an eye for subtle social distinctions.
–John McCarron, The Chicago Tribune
Issues that are all too familiar — drugs, crime, teenage pregnancy, the frustrations caused by government red tape take on new immediacy thanks to the extraordinary intimacy of Mr. Wiseman’s working methods. Through one revealing, well-chosen episode after another, he succeeds in turning sad generalities into powerfully affecting specifics.
–Janet Maslin, The New York Times