In the future, when I come across someone who has never been to Chicago but wants to know what my hometown is like, I will tell them to watch Steve James’ CITY SO REAL. Produced by Kartemquin Films (HOOP DREAMS) and soon-to-be-aired on the National Geographic Channel, this brilliant five-part miniseries looks at Chicago in its full complexity — as a major metropolis that serves as a global tourist destination but also as a down-to-earth Midwestern “city of neighborhoods.” Most of the reviews of the series I’ve come across so far have focused on its depiction of the Windy City’s crazy mayoral race of 2019 — when an unprecedented 14 candidates vied for the spot after Rahm Emanuel, tainted by his role in the cover-up of the Laquan McDonald shooting, wisely decided not to run for re-election. To be sure, James’ access to behind-the-scenes machinations of local electoral politics offers some juicy moments (in one amusing scene, then-candidate Lori Lightfoot refers to those caught up in the Ed Burke extortion scandal as “dumb fucks”); but I think it’s truer to say that James uses the mayoral race as a narrative hook that allows him to draw viewers in while also allowing him to do something much more expansive, which is to paint an epic, impressionistic portrait of Chicago at a moment of societal tumult (complete with a digression on Bears fandom, cameos by Chance the Rapper and Kanye West and a song by the great Staples Singers on the soundtrack). A particularly nice touch: Every scene begins by including a graphic of the city showing where the scene takes place and identifying the neighborhood by name.
CITY SO REAL’s complex and provocative fifth episode, an epilogue that flashes forward to a year after Lightfoot’s election, when her “honeymoon phase” has long ended and the city is both ravaged by COVID and rocked by protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, caused me to rethink the first four parts entirely. It is here where James’ and David Simpson’s masterful montage editing, while never being overtly showy or kinetic, becomes worthy of comparison to Eisenstein in its dialectical approach. In addition to showing copious footage of the protests from a wide variety of sources, James gives equal screen time to both Lightfoot’s defense of her aggressive handling of the protests and the criticism of eloquent activists like Miracle Boyd (a teenager whose teeth were knocked out by a cop for merely wielding a cell-phone camera in public). More subtly, James offers a pointed critique of Chicago as a city still largely segregated along racial lines by juxtaposing scenes in both white and black barbershops. My personal favorite moment involves Tim Tuten, owner of the legendary Hideout music venue, trashing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF as a supposedly “modern classic” in a direct-to-camera address after John Hughes’ movie is programmed at a drive-in theater at the controversial Lincoln Yards development site (where Tuten imagines a grown-up Bueller is now ready to move in). This angry and hilarious scene is my favorite work of film criticism in all of 2020. But James also rightly ends the series on a moment of poignancy and hope — by just hanging out in a residential south-side backyard with a pair of young girls who represent the city’s unwritten future, and a beautiful gospel song.
CITY SO REAL can be screened virtually via the Chicago International Film Festival. The National Geographic Channel will broadcast the television premiere on Thursday, October 29.