Police Violence, Unrest and a Mayor's Race: Chicagoan Steve James Takes on Turbulent Home in 'City So Real'
Five-part series now streaming on Hulu and on demand through National Geographic
This year's presidential race demonstrates that no matter how messed up a country is someone will still want to run it.
The same is true for municipalities. Take Chicago: The metropolitan area has been shedding population for the past 10 years or more and in 2017 it recorded more murders than any other U.S. city, almost twice as many as second place Baltimore. The number or murders this year has already surpassed 2017's total.
Its racial divisions are depressingly chronic. The systematic mistreatment of African Americans in the city came into tragic focus in 2014 when a white police officer shot and killed African-American teenager Laquan McDonald. Police supervisors initially declared the killing justified, and the officer only faced murder charges after dash cam video was belatedly released that contradicted official accounts of what had happened. The incident prompted a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Chicago policing, which concluded the CPD exhibited a culture of excessive violence against minorities.
Despite these grave problems, no shortage of people came forward to run for mayor in 2018, including, initially, the incumbent Rahm Emanuel. It was at that stage that veteran documentary filmmaker Steve James began documenting the mayor's contest in the city he has long called home.
"We thought it would be a really fascinating mayoral race," James tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "There were at one point 21 candidates, and 14 of which ultimately landed on the ballot."
When it happened it certainly rocked Chicago in a huge way and it had huge ramifications politically in this town.
James' five-part documentary series City So Real, produced by James and Zak Piper, is now available through the National Geographic Channel and is streaming on Hulu. Just a couple of months after the production got underway, Emanuel shocked the city by announcing he would not seek a third term as mayor.
"He dropped out literally the day before the trial [of the officer charged with murdering McDonald] was to begin," James notes. "Though he had raised something like 10 million dollars for his reelection campaign at that point he decided, I think, he just wasn't up for the vitriol and the anger because he'd already had several years of that and now with the campaign imminent it would just get ramped up even more."
Among those who announced their candidacy before Emanuel dropped out was Lori Lightfoot, a Chicago lawyer and chair of the Police Accountability Task Force created in response to the McDonald killing. But after Emanuel bailed, the field really got crowded.
"It became a total free for all," James says, "and then of course that led to the entrance of certain more high powered potential frontrunners into the race once he dropped out."
James and Piper gained remarkable access to a bunch of the candidates, including Lightfoot, businessman Willie Wilson, tech entrepreneur Neal Sáles-Griffin, activist Ja’Mal Green, community organizer Amara Enyia, former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Paul Vallas, the ex-chief of the Chicago public school system. Early episodes document how difficult it is just to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot and then stay on it.
"Landing on the ballot is no small feat. The petition process in Chicago is Chicago politics at its most hardball," James comments. "The attempts to get people off the ballot or tie them up in ballot challenges is something that I think Chicago has raised to a fine art, if you will."
The skirmishing by President Trump's legal team over ballot counting in the presidential election pales in comparison to the bloodsport in Chicago around qualifying to run for mayor. Sáles-Griffin was almost booted off the ballot after Wilson's people disputed every single one of the more than 12,000 signatures collected on behalf of Sáles-Griffin.
"I hope one thing the series can help do is to change that process, because there should be a process by which candidates get on the ballot," Piper observes. "I don't think the process we have is necessarily a great process."
City So Real goes almost ward by ward through Chicago's many neighborhoods, giving a sense of the lived experience of people in economically-challenged sections as well as the tony, affluent Gold Coast. One of the series' most startling revelations is how disconnected many white people are from minorities in other parts of the city, and how unsympathetic they are to protests over racial injustice and police violence.
"I guess I'm just naive but I was a bit shocked at how divorced from the Laquan McDonald trial and mayoral politics even that a lot of people in this city were," notes James, "especially when you consider other people were so passionate and so engaged and so informed and had lots to say about it."
Piper echoes that assessment.
"The Laquan McDonald murder trial felt like the biggest thing, it just felt like a huge headline and to know that there were people who really knew nothing about it, barely knew that it was happening, they weren't even hard to find," Piper comments. "That was shocking."
James and his cinematographers, including his son Jackson, captured how defunding police became an issue in Chicago in the midst of the unrest over McDonald's killing. This was before George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis made defunding police a subject of national debate. In so many ways an understanding of Chicago -- its history of racial division and seemingly intractable social problems -- sheds light on the political challenges facing cities across the U.S.
"As often is said, Chicago is the quintessential American city. I think in part that's because of where it's located geographically and the sort of folks that make their way here or are born and raised here," Piper tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "What's happening in Chicago -- what's been happening for years, if not a generation, is really a microcosm of what is happening in the country. All of the issues the city is grappling with, in terms of the mayoral race, which is documented in the series, all come to bear in 2020 with the pandemic and then the social upheaval following the murder of George Floyd. The examination of Chicago, it is sort of a stand in for that of the country."
Anyone who follows politics at all will know how the Chicago mayoral race turned out. Lori Lightfoot embarked on her campaign with very little support, but ended up earning the most votes in the February 2019 election, which put her into a runoff with second-place finisher Toni Preckwinkle. She defeated Preckwinkle easily in the runoff in April 2019, becoming the Windy City's first Black female mayor and first openly-gay mayor. So how is the city doing under her leadership so far?
"There were enormous problems to be overcome in Chicago before the pandemic and the [social] upheaval and that has only been exacerbated and there are much bigger budget deficits now than there were before and there's much more anger and a feeling that we want change now," James tells me. "I don't think Lori Lightfoot has been the perfect mayor by any stretch, but I do feel that she has a will and a determination to try and make things better for this city and make things better for the people in this city who have historically not been taken care of. So I believe in her intentions there. I don't think she's sometimes getting there in the right way and she's got a lot to learn as a politician in navigating all that, I think."
James adds, "I'm hopeful for the city because I just think there's far too many smart, engaged, passionate people in this city for us to not figure it out."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.