“They pull a knife? You pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital? You send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.”
The famous quote from “The Untouchables,” Brain De Palma’s Academy Award-winning film set during Al Capone’s 1930s heyday, still hovers over a city whose history is awash with gang violence. In “Chicagoland,” CNN’s new eight-part original series from “Brick City” producers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin premiering tonight, March 6th, at 9pm, that 80+ year old mentality still rings frighteningly true. But “Chicagoland” isn’t just focused on gangs: the series, which is executive produced by Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn of Sundance Productions, strives to show how gangs affect crime, crime affects schools, schools affect policy and policy changes lives in America’s third largest city.
The first episode focuses on the 2013 battle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teacher’s Union over the impending closure of 54 schools city-wide. Emaunel — who’s seen meeting with advisors, talking to students, and riding the subway — believes change is necessary while the union is fighting him every step of the way. “He is the murder mayor,” said Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. “Look at the murder rate in this city. He’s murdering schools. He’s murdering good jobs. He’s murdering housing. I don’t know what else to call him.”
Impassioned, heated statements like this are fairly common in debates of any kind, and it’s easy to get caught up in the vehement verbosity. Yet director and executive producer Levin remains refreshingly neutral. Bouncing between behind-the-scenes access with Emanuel and heartfelt pleas from families, Levin presents the facts as straight figures — highlighted maps with statistics relay information to the audience as well as government officials reading reports during briefings or public hearings. Only after the groundwork is laid do we hear from the mayor and his constituents. The balance makes the material all the more compelling and discussion more vibrant.
Things get even messier in part two, an episode framed around the Chicago Blackhawks’ historic Stanley Cup championship in 2013. While fans in River North and Wrigleyville watch games at packed sports bars, violence continues to erupt in the southern districts.
Inside one of those districts is Fenger High School, a formerly troubled institution in the Rosedale neighborhood that’s moving itself in the right direction thanks in part to a four-year federal grant, but more so — according to the doc — because of Principal Elizabeth Dozier. She’s facing the end of her grant money and big budget cuts at the end of the 2013 school year, and the filmmakers track her struggles from very public campaigning to whispered conversations with politicians.
What makes these events so difficult to watch — and believe me, they’re tough enough on their own — is the contrast between upper-middle class, mostly caucasian fans celebrating the victories of a pro hockey team while mostly black communities are simply trying to survive each night.
At first, it feels grating; a fulsome and unnecessary exercise to make everyone who remembered mindlessly celebrating a game feel guilty for not being as passionate for truly significant events. A little of that is still present by the end of the episode, but Levin manages to tie in far more to the Blackhawks than is expected. It’s not a twist ending, per se, but an evident mark of a craftsman carefully putting pieces into place.
With executive producers like Redford, Levin and Benjamin, it should come as no surprise that “Chicagoland” is exquisitely told (at least through the first two episodes provided for critics). Each installment seems to involve more areas of concern than the last while still carefully tying each and every one together.
Children seems to be the one unifying theme. Not only are they ever-present in the education battle, but “Chicagoland” seems as concerned about the future of the great city as it does its present. Asean Johnson, a 9-year-old attending one of the schools on the chopping block, is an emotional participant in the protests. He makes speeches, strong speeches challenging the mayor and asking him to step down. The gruff monotone of narrator Mark Konkol mentions how the boy could someday be mayor himself, a statement he’s not alone in considering.
“Chicagoland” doesn’t seem overly concerned with whether or not that becomes a reality. It doesn’t spend extra time on the photogenic Johnson. Instead, it shifts focus back to the city as a whole without asking you to choose between the mayor’s plan and the people’s protests. Rather than picking sides, “Chicagoland” merely seems to be asking whether or not Asean could represent a new Chicago way.