The city of Chicago has always received less than top billing in the United States. Its blue-collar, earthy mentality is quite unique when compared to Houston, Los Angeles, or New York City. However, it truly is a world all its own with over 75 separate sections comprising its makeup, each showcasing some of the best (and worst) parts of who we are as a people. With his five-part drama City So Real (NatGeo, 10.29 and Hulu starting 10.30), director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, America to Me) has provided an opportunity for the city as a whole to give voice on behalf of the entire country – and this is accomplished in remarkable fashion.
I lived and attended school in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, so I’ve seen a thing or two about the town—or so I thought. Instead, I discovered that I was quite sheltered from the richness and color Chicago has as a whole. In order to get that, I had to jump on the freeway and drive 25 or so miles east. But even then, I only spent time in the popular areas (Downtown; Navy Pier; Lakeshore Drive). Rarely did I ever step foot into the other parts of town.
James, in his over five hour documentary (and I recommend you watch the whole thing), brings to light two portions of life from these 75+ perspectives. The first involves the weeks and months after mayor Rahm Emmanuel decided not to run for reelection. With the city swimming in financial woes and uncertainty (such as a potentially huge housing project called Lincoln Yards), you might think two or three individuals would come out and run to take over that position. Wrong! Twenty-one people throw their hat into the fray – from computer coder Neal Sáles-Griffin to Nigerian born Amara Enyia (getting cred from Chace the Rapper and Kanye West) to Richard Daley (whose relatives ran the city for 43 years), the documentary showed off not only the convoluted process Chicago has for its elections, but how each candidate campaigned—and more importantly, how each section of the city responded. The Sideline Studios, a predominantly African-American haircut place on the South Side, is allowed to let its owner Dionell Hill and his customers air their thoughts a la Coming to America—and they pull no punches. That business is later contrasted with another haircut location that features all Caucasian clientele. It was refreshing perspective to see and hear the tonal color of these sections of town—and see them firsthand.
The race also coincides with the murder trial of a Chicago cop who killed Laquan McDonald by shooting him 16 times. Chicago has always been known for corruption—and a large part of the town thinks the office will get off free. They think in mainly binary tones, but when justice is finally reached, it’s a breath of fresh air one part of the city has rarely seen.
The mayoral race gets dirty and competitive – and in the end the winner is a former prosecutor named Lori Lightfoot, a lady who’s willing to walk door to door and meet people to get a vote. She exhibits a new way of looking things, being both African-American and lesbian. In the end, she wins in a landslide.
If James were to have stopped here, it would’ve been enough. However, the last part of the documentary brings the now into perspective – starting in March when Covid-19 began to ransack the country and led to Chicago shutting down, killing many of the mom-and-pop businesses in the process (one resorted to selling jigsaw puzzles and even printing its own money). Lightfoot’s non-nonsense, don’t-mess-with-me demeanor was one that worked effectively—until people started getting tired of being inside and George Floyd’s death ripped the bandage off racial tensions. Of course, the story isn’t over—it plays out every day, making Chicago . . . well . . . that place Carl Sandburg immortalized in his poem of the same name.
I found the documentary to be cutting, relevant, and well-executed. James has a knack for getting into the minds of people and asking questions that allow them to share who they are and how they’re feeling. People are definitely willing to talk if you allow them a method to share their voice! I was also impressed about how James allowed each section of town to speak for itself, a unique yet important aspect. It reminds me of some of the areas mentioned in the Bible—Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem are just three. Each are part of the overall picture of history and yet each has its own unique flavor. Jerusalem saw its share of violence and destruction for thousands of years – not only inside but outside the city walls. Nazareth was a place where people asked if anything good could come from it (in this case, it certainly did). Bethlehem was extremely small and yet is now known as the birthplace of Jesus. All the pieces, when put together, make up a picture that’s greater than the sum of its parts. City So Real reveals that in a compelling and gripping way—one you won’t soon forget.
City So Real airs on NatGeo on October 29 and Hulu starting October 30