The unofficial subtitle of “City So Real” — Steve James’ long-gestating and utterly gripping portrait of Chicago — is “The American City at a Crossroads.” Flashing onto the screen over a map of the city broken into neighborhoods, the subtitle isn’t used in each of the four episodes, yet its initial inclusion emphasizes the docuseries’ striking duality. First and foremost, there’s the crisis facing Chicago. Police shootings and gang violence have led to racial and economical divides. Citizens are fleeing for other metropolitan locales in the hopes of finding safer, more affordable homes and better jobs. The city has long been ravaged by political corruption, but the 2019 mayoral election marks voters’ best opportunity to upend the status quo.
That election, and its unprecedented 21 candidates, serve as the ostensible focus of James’ four-hour series. But if it’s not already evident from the topical descriptions above, “City So Real” encapsulates more than just a historical moment for Chicago. James isn’t telling the story of an American city, but the American city; Chicago’s problems are America’s problems, from our divisions to our strengths. By speaking to the candidates who want to shape the future and the residents living through a difficult present, James finds as many connections as contradictions, giving the campaign’s uplifting lessons a prime spotlight without overlooking the dubious warnings we can’t afford to ignore — not again.
Like just about all of James’ work, “City So Real” is also incredibly watchable. Each scene is set by an onscreen icon highlighting the name and location of the current neighborhood, which helps to split up Chicago by more than just the typical North Side vs. South Side divide. James visits two barbershops, both south of downtown, both with different outlooks. The stylists and customers at Sideline Studio get into a screaming match over black privilege, with the black owner dismissing a black patron’s opinion because, as a promoted, long-standing postal worker, he’s in the government’s pocket. But even with many vehement accusations being thrown around — including the barber calling his customer a “house n—–” — the encounter ends with the owner promising the man a good, “professional” haircut and the customer asking if he should have lunch at the rib joint across the street.
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Their intense conflict is quickly squashed, while anger lasts eternal at Joe’s 26th Street shop, where the thick Chicago accents made famous by Bill Swerski’s Super Fans on “SNL” are heard complaining about how much protection is afforded to “these idiots on the streets.” One (white) ex-cop feels sorry for the new generation, not for the many youths being killed, but because the police can’t do what’s needed to protect anyone. They’ll be too afraid of a personal liability lawsuit, like the one this ex-cop’s friend is facing, to do what’s necessary.
Revealing conversations like these populate the documentary series, and while many (like the above) are captured in James’ typical fly-on-the-wall style of shooting, he also adds one-on-one, person-on-the-street interviews to better elicit various perspectives. There’s a (somewhat inebriated) Cubs fan who goes off on protesters from the South Side marching all the way into Wrigleyville, multiple solo candidate spotlights, and more. Two outspoken tavern owners form the backbone of the documentary with eloquent words about the encroaching Lincoln Yards project, a $6 billion real-estate development threatening to commercialize neighborhood culture and erase local staples.
Many of these voices are presented without comment, be it from James asking questions behind the camera or telling edits that undercut or emphasize what was just said. But perhaps most infuriating is the demographic split between engaged and oblivious citizens, as seen when James (whose son Jackson also served as a cameraman) talks to people in two different neighborhoods about Jason Van Dyke’s trial.
The trial is a major event. Van Dyke claimed Laquan McDonald was acting erratically and lunged at him with a knife, explaining why the officer shot the 17-year-old African-American 16 times. But when dash cam footage is released, showing McDonald was unarmed and walking away from police, the ensuing controversy led to Van Dyke being charged with first-degree murder, the firing of police superintendent Gary McCarthy (who later ran for mayor), and incumbent mayor Rahm Emmanuel choosing not to seek reelection in 2019.
Residents closer to where McDonald was killed (who are also people of color) speak with specificity about the incident. They’ve formed opinions about what happened, as well as what will happen to the city if the charged cop goes free. But multiple white residents in the northern part of town either don’t know anything about it or don’t feel comfortable giving an opinion. One woman says she can’t trust the news to tell the truth, and she doesn’t have the time to find the truth on her own, so she just hasn’t looked into it.
If that’s not a defining American position heading into the 2020 election, good luck finding one. The timing of “City So Real” couldn’t be more concentrated. With racial tensions at a peak, the climate crisis being ignored, and multiple Democratic candidates fighting for a nomination that could change the fate of the world, so much of what unfolds in these four hours feels pertinent, if not downright prescient. James’ examination of the 2019 mayoral election and everything swirling through Chicago at the time makes the story momentous, while his execution makes it so easy to absorb. “Significance” is a word that gets tossed around a lot when discussing topical entertainment these days, but “City So Real” carries its weight effortlessly. Responsible to the historic moment yet enthralling in a minute-by-minute capacity few unscripted or scripted TV series can earn, Steve James’ latest is a flat-out must-see.
“City So Real” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Indie Episodic section. The four-part documentary from Participant Media and Kartemquin Films is currently seeking distribution.