“City So Real” is epic in size, scope and ambition.
Its debut – 7 p.m. ET (4 p.m. PT) Thursday on the National Geographic Channel, before moving to Hulu on Friday – runs six hours. And that’s without commercials.
During that time, it tries to portray the entire city of Chicago. Mostly, it succeeds.
Steve James has used segments of Chicago as the backdrop for many of his films – “Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters,” “Life Itself” and “America to Me.” But now he wants to portray an entire city. Naturally, it t centers on an election (shown here).
“Politics in Chicago is a blood sport,” one person says in the film. And the 2019 mayoral race was the most sprawling … with potential to be the bloodiest.
James began filming on July 4, 2018. Two months later, Rahm Emanuel announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election; suddenly, there was a wide-open field.
In all, 21 people announced they were running … 17 filed petitions … 14 survived the grueling process that has opponents questioning every signature, to see if 12,500 can be approved.
If you don’t know who won, then don’t look it up now. The fun here is in the surprises.
There were the traditional candidates. Bill Daley is a businessman whose father and brother (both named Richard) each spent two decades as mayor. Toni Preckwinkle is president of the Cook County Board. Willie Wilson, who began as a McDonald’s worker, is a wealthy franchise-owner.
Four candidates aspired to be Chicago’s first black female mayor. One, Lori Lightfoot, would also be the first openly gay mayor … and maybe one of the shortest chief executives anywhere.
Some people campaigned in old-school ways. We see Daley at a suit-and-tie dinner, Wilson racing between black churches, leaving a check – $10,000 for one, $5,000 for another – at each.
And some are new-school. Amara Enyia brought the support of Chance the Rapper and Kanye West.
The game was fought by arcane Chicago rules. People camped out in front of the election office with their petitions, hoping to be among the first listed on the ballot. Then they routinely disputed the others’ signatures. One newcomer was startled when his mother’s signature was rejected.
But “City So Real” is about much more than politics. It leaps between neighborhoods – always showing us where we are – and absorbs the flavor of gatherings. One early segment catches two barber shops – a vibrant one with Black clients and a quiet one with retired white policemen.
And yes, the relationship between Blacks and police is crucial here.
In 2014, a policeman shot 17-year-old Laquan MacDonald 16 times. Emanuel didn’t release the video footage until a court ordered him to, 15 months later … long after his re-election. He then fired Garry McCarthy, who had been the reform police superintendent for both Cory Booker (in Newark) and Emanuel. McCarthy joined the mayoral field.
“City So Real” – which includes the policeman’s trial – has more than enough for a mega-documentary. James ended it in February of 2019, with the surprise results of the primary. He merely attached a note about the lopsided win (another surprise) in the general election in April.
That finished the sprawling four-parter that was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. But National Geographic then commissioned a fifth part, with a new question:
How would the new mayor do, when faced with two new crises – COVID and the rage fueled by another white-cop/Black-victim death, this time George Floyd in Minneapolis?
It would be another tough summer in Chicago. This is a city so real, so human and so complicated.