Dickens had the teeming streets of Victorian-era London, Balzac had Paris during the Bourbon Restoration period, and Steve James has 21st century Chicago. A key part of the team behind the groundbreaking Hoop Dreams, this veteran documentarian has dabbled over the years in everything from biopics (Prefontaine) to bigger-picture looks at social ills (Abacus: Small Enough to Jail). It’s the City of Broad Shoulders, however, that’s provided him with a creative home base via Kartemquin Films and a subject rich enough to examine in depth. Every U.S. metropolis is a microcosm of the social bargaining, communal living, and uneasy class tension that defines so much of the American experiment as a whole. And the particular mix of people — and problems — in this Midwestern hub is fertile ground on everything from the necessity of social activism (The Interrupters) to the byzantine perks and pitfalls of the public school system (the 10-episode docuseries America to Me). Chicago is continually at the center of his best work. In many ways, it’s his muse. Even Life Itself, James’ 2014 profile of the late film critic Roger Ebert, doubles as a look at how the Second City breeds its best and brightest.
City So Real, a sprawling look at a pivotal moment in Chi-town’s modern political history that debuts tonight on NatGeo (all five of its hour-plus installments will drop on Hulu tomorrow), continues James’ drilling down into the various corners of a vibrant, diverse, and highly conflicted urban landscape. It’s tempting to call it his crowning achievement, though when you have Hoop Dreams on your resume, the competition for that accolade is stiff. Centered mostly around the 2018 mayoral election — in which the incumbent Rahm Emanuel announced he wouldn’t seek a third term, thus opening the race up — the series follows the general trajectory of a who-will-win campaign competition, complete with the backbiting, undercutting, trash-talking and horse-trading we now associate with winning public office. (“Politics in Chicago is a blood sport,” one advisor notes, and by the end of this series, you feel like that’s an extraordinary understatement.) There are family-dynasty candidates like William Daley, city-council insiders like Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot, outlier choices like former police superintendent Garry McCarthy, wealthy entrepreneurs such as Willie Wilson, young progressives like Amara Enyia, and even younger progressives like Neal Sáles-Griffin, who barely squeaks his way onto the ballot.
It’s easy enough — one Google search away, in fact — to find out who ends up the victor, though if you’ve been paying attention to President Trump’s constant attacks on Chicago’s leadership and crime stats over the past year, you probably already know. That’s not what City So Real is actually interested in, however. And though you get one hell of a look at how the sausage is made when it comes to the minutiae and machinations of Windy City bureaucracy, that’s merely one entree in this meal. There’s also the killing of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old teenager who was shot 16 times by CPD Officer Jason Van Dyke. The young man was black, the cop was white, and the “trust deficit” between the African-American community and law enforcement, as well as those who support the latter, is hitting a new low as Van Dyke’s trial ensues. And hovering in the background is the construction of Lincoln Yards, a massive and much-disliked development that will change not only the waterfront area but likely the residents around it. There’s a word for this type of thing, and it rhymes with “schmentrification.”
But what really interests James — what really makes this moving-picture mural stand out so vividly — is how everyone comes together (or comes at each other) under the collective banner of “Chicagoans.” He takes his cameras to the neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Lakeview, Hyde Park and Humboldt Park, Bucktown and Bridgeport, Chatham and Clearing, Washington Heights and Wrigleyville and many more, highlighting each place via geography on a map; it’s possible to watch the entirety of this series and feel like you have a layman’s view of the city’s layout. A gradual sense of the differences between the South Side and the North Side, East Chicago and West Chicago, starts to emerge. James sits quietly in barbershops and sports bars, among protesters and ex-policemen and polling officials, hovering around penthouse dinner parties and press conferences and courtrooms ready to pop off. He lets a host of different people speak on everything from Chance the Rapper’s endorsement of Enyia’s candidacy to CPD reform to the disparities that separate folks stumping at City Hall from those on street corners. Some of the candor is cringeworthy — some locals’ views of race relations are way too … retrograde for comfort — and others’ brim with inspiration, rage, and righteousness. But everybody gets their say. Everybody.
You’re left with such an incredible portrait of not just how Chicago functions but how citizens functions within it, modestly or otherwise, that you feel as if you’ve walked those same avenues, eaten in those same diners, whooped in those same churches, argued in those same polling-station backrooms. City So Real isn’t a civics class so much as a master class on the art of listening to people, shining a spotlight on them, giving them their moment to speak and scream and declare, We are here. By the time we finish the election cycle of the first four episodes, the ins and outs of so much history and culture regarding Illinois’ crown jewel feels ingrained in you.
Which helps when you get to the final episode, which fast-forwards a year after Chicago elects its new mayor and finds itself in the early stages of the pandemic. Then, in rapid succession, come George Floyd’s murder and the BLM protests that tore at Chicago’s fragile fabric even more. Once again, we see class divisions, distrust of authority, and racism. Once again, we see the worst and the best of folks; if you forgot how heated the removal of Christopher Columbus’ statue in Grant Park was back in July, this series will remind you. Once again, we see America in miniature, and no easy answers in sight. We also see a city so many people are proud to call home. The title, by the way, comes partially from a book by Alex Kotlowitz (James’ collaborator on The Interrupters), and partially from Nelson Algren, the writer who haunted Chicago’s taverns and tawdry areas in the Forties and Fifties. Once you’ve spent time here, he noted, it’s “like loving a woman with a broken nose. You may find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” Viewers may find a more polished take on this place, and on the famous and everyday folks who live here. They will not find one more insightful, exhilarating, or lovelier.