Molly Given, of the Philly Metro interviews Chicago filmmaker Steve James about his latest film, ‘City so Real‘
Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Steve James’ (Hoop Dreams, America to Me) fascinating and complex portrait of contemporary Chicago delivers a deep, multifaceted look into the soul of a quintessentially American city, set against the backdrop of its history-making 2019 mayoral election, and the tumultuous 2020 summer of COVID-19 and social upheaval following the police killing of George Floyd.
The summer of 2019 was a huge one for Chicago, and it’s mayoral race which had a surprising outcome showcasing the true meaning of a political “underdog.” The race itself showcases a vast amount of problems and issues that James says are not just unique to Chicago, but the whole country. What makes this series interesting is also the fifth and final episode, which was filmed after production had wrapped and even premiered at a few film festivals. After the pandemic hit and the death of George Floyd which sparked a cultural uprising, James knew the story was not yet finished.
National Geographic premiered all five episodes of ‘City So Real’ in one go on Oct. 29. All episodes can now be seen on Hulu.
Steve James sat down with Metro to discuss what went into filming the new docu-series.
What was it that drove you to want to begin to work on ‘City So Real’?
I’ve been [in Chicago] for 35 years, and a number of years ago I thought it would be great to do a portrait of this city that I’ve come to know and I felt like I wanted to do it at a time when Chicago was at an important juncture or crossroads. When the mayoral election rolled around a year and a half ago, which was probably I think the most open mayoral race in history, that coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it just seemed like those two things really marked a significant moment for Chicago and it’s future. But, we didn’t want the whole series to be a political film and we didn’t want it to be about a trial in politics entirely, we really wanted it to be a portrait of the city and the people who live here in the neighborhoods really at a ground-level.
Originally the series was only four parts. Why did you decide to add the fifth part after COVID-19 and George Floyd?
We completed the first four episodes and thought we were done—it premiered at Sundance and at another festival or two before the pandemic hit and shut everything down. While everything was closed down, I started to think about the fact that now what was going on in Chicago, just like the rest of the country, was so new and it probably deserved to be captured in some way and become part of the series. We started to venture out to shoot what we thought was going to be more of post-script, but then when George Floyd hit it became apparent that we were in for a full-on episode. So, we got back out there and made it a point to capture that. I think the series before episode 5 has much to tell us about America right now: What’s been going on in Chicago as it wrestles with decisions about economic development, relationships with the police, racism, equity, gentrification—these are all issues that are American issues. I think with episode 5, it brings it right up to date with what the country is struggling with as a whole in this moment.
Why do you feel as though Chicago’s problems are America’s problems?
I think because of where Chicago is in the Midwest, or in the Heartland as we like to say out here, there’s been this feeling that Chicago is a quintessential American city. It has all the big city sophistication and complexity and diversity that you find in other places in America, but it also has this more grounded population of the Midwest. So, I think that Chicago has emerged to earn that label. There was a time that Southside Chicago, which to this day remains primarily Black, was considered the center of Black culture in the United States, even more so than Harlem. There have been so many aspects to Chicago that make it stand out in a national way that I think are still very much true today, and that coupled with the fact that politics here are a bloodsport, there’s a feeling that if you make it in Chicago politics you can make it anywhere. Obama wasn’t born here, but he did cut his teeth politically here and he learned some things about politics here that I think helped him get elected President. There’s a lot going on in this city, this city has a long history of activism because it’s the national birthplace of community organizing in America. I think what’s happening right now in this moment we’re living in is that the rest of the country is seeing ways they are like Chicago—they might not be seeing it that way, but that’s how I look at it.
Over the course of the series, you talk to a lot of different people and capture different conversations. Did any specifically stand out to you?
A standout out for me was the petition process in Chicago, I think in microcosm that petition challenge process and all the gamesmanship that goes into it and the hardball politics of it is reflective of the way politics are played in this city—for good, for bad and for sometimes ugly. I was really struck by that and just people we met along the way. All moments were unexpected and not planned for, but they happened and affected me.
How do you feel about having it premiere all five hours in one go?
That was [National Geographic’s] decision, but I was wholeheartedly in agreement that they do that. There will be breaks at the top of the hour, but I love the idea that they’re making it available in one swoop because I do think that it hooks you and that as episodes come to an end, you do want to keep watching. I also am aware that five hours is a lot to binge-watch, so I love the fact that it’s also available on Hulu the next day so people can DVR it. But I do love the idea of immersing the audience in the story, because it’s not structured like episodic television—I feel like its one long film broken into five parts.
Overall, what do you hope people take away from the series?
I hope they take away the fact that Chicago is a unique city in many ways. It’s a beautiful city and I’m not just talking about the skyline, I’m talking about the people and the neighborhoods. It’s also very much an American city, and I hope it’ll cause people to reflect on their own cities and their own mayors and own government and own neighborhoods and think deeply about them. I want people to see the way politics play out here, there is both parts to make you despair because the process can be byzantine and savor people with resources and clout, but at the same time look who was elected mayor here. This was a political outsider—a Black woman, a gay woman who had never held elective office and she came from way back in the pack to become the mayor of the city and surprise everyone. So, there’s hope in that too that it’s possible to become mayor of a major American city and not do it in the usual way or through the usual channels.
‘City So Real’ premieres on National Geographic Oct. 29 and on Hulu Oct. 30.