‘City So Real’ and the Politics of a Modern Metropolis

One of the crowning achievements of City So Real is that it shows that the fight for racial justice in Chicago became adopted by people of all identities thanks to the tireless work of organizers.

City So Real
Steve James
29 October 2020 (US)

One of the first sequences in the documentary series City So Real shows the mayoral candidates in Chicago marching in the 2018 Bud Billiken Parade, a celebration for the start of the back-to-school season in the storied Black neighborhood of Bronzeville. Then-mayor Rahm Emanuel receives an icy reception. His shuttering of public schools and obstructing the release of the video of the police-involved murder of Laquan McDonald destroyed the goodwill built in the community during his term as the Chief of Staff to hometown hero President Barack Obama. Pretenders to the mayor’s spot follow closely, taking the opportunity to expand their name recognition and build support to challenge the unpopular incumbent.

Using this impending race as a window, City So Real invites the viewer to a multitude of spaces that compose an astonishing slice of life of the “Great American City”. Seasoned documentarian Steve James (best-known for 1994’s monumental Hoop Dreams, also set in Chicago) never tells you how to think or feel. Instead, he presents a painstakingly edited barrage of footage and leaves the viewer to make their own conclusions about what resonates and leaves an impact. The only thing that is never in doubt is James’ deep love for the city, in all its glory and nuance, that shines through every scene.

img-701Little Blue Robot by vinsky2002 (Pixabay License /Pixabay)

Cities are so big and complex that no single perspective can capture their entirety. The only way to begin to understand them is to show how its people interact with the place and with each other. A consistent refrain throughout the documentary is that Chicago is a “city of neighborhoods”. At the beginning of each sequence, the neighborhood is named and highlighted on a map, emphasizing the varied geographies and stories that underpin each community.

By simply entering the barbershops and hair salons of different corners of town in the first episode, a stark contrast is established about the prevailing issues. Frustration about how to engage Black youth explodes into a heated argument between a postal worker and his barber at Sideline Studios in the South Shore, where a sign for
My Brother’s Keeper (an Obama Foundation initiative intended to address opportunity gaps for young men of color) sits in the window.

Meanwhile, at a barbershop in traditionally Italian-American Bridgeport, the pictures on the wall are of boxers, Bears’ linemen, and police officers. Racially insensitive humor prevails in a setting where no one will object. The jokes soon give way to complaints about the increased expectations of accountability for the police keeping them from “doing their job”.

At the Desi Salon in the Beverly neighborhood, a Black woman talks about her previously held belief that her college education and respectful demeanor would shelter her from a traumatizing traffic stop (spoiler: it didn’t). Another describes how a family member was murdered by an officer, with the department agreeing to a financial settlement.

The shadow of community violence in the South and West Side looms large over the mayoral race. The roots of the problem arose from historic disinvestment and segregation that dates back to the days when half a million Black Americans departed the South for the “promised land” in search of opportunities and freedoms denied at home. It’s no wonder that essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ haunting narrative of American racism, “The Case for Reparations“, centers on the life of Clyde Ross, a man who migrates to redlined Chicago from Mississippi after serving in the Army during World War II. The areas most affected by gun violence today correspond neatly to those denied federal loans and services due to their racial composition.

Trump repeatedly used Chicago as a foil, casting its well-publicized and traumatic gun violence problem as an issue to be solved by busting heads. The intention of this rhetoric has never been to solve the underlying issues that cause violence, but rather to threaten a blunt show of force to satisfy the ravenous desire from his racist base for Black suffering.

Municipal politics, on the other hand, are grounded in actual community realities. All the 2019 mayoral candidates came to the race with a certain understanding of the city and the genuine belief that their policies could improve the lives of its people. City So Real follows as the field grows more crowded, especially after Emanuel declares that he will not be seeking another term in office. Sunday morning church services, fallen police officer memorials, and street corner press conferences with Chance the Rapper and Kanye West – the documentary’s cameras are there.

Neal Sáles-Griffin, a self-described teacher and Southsider, discusses his sadness at seeing his students leave the city for cheaper pastures in Atlanta and New Orleans – the Great Migration in reverse – while discussing the motivation behind his candidacy at a barbeque in Jackson Park. Elsewhere in the city, an opera singer belts the national anthem before Bill Daley puts his name in the race at a stuffy exclusive social club. A member of Chicago’s defining political dynasty (son of one mayor and brother of another), his vision of turning the city around follows the model established by Michael Bloomberg in New York City – private investment at the expense of the existing community. Lincoln Yards, a massive redevelopment project atop the ruins of steel mills, becomes the symbol for the bitter disputes over what Chicago’s future should be.

One of the most revealing scenes is the dinner party at businesswoman and heiress Christie Hefner‘s ritzy apartment in the Near North Side. The mayoral race is on everyone’s mind, and the conversation is dominated, as is often the case at these types of gatherings, by White men. A theatre critic argues that Chicago has the opportunity of becoming a “global city”, while a major midwestern bank CEO makes comments attacking the tenure of Mayor Harold Washington (1983-1987), the first Black mayor of the city, as “chaos”. Publisher and journalist Susan S. Richardson pushes back, arguing that the city’s leaders don’t see the link between much-needed financial investment and “the woman who’s working in the braiding shop” in a cogent argument for the importance of political representation. This is just one of the many quotes that linger in one’s memory long after the conclusion of the series.

Over the course of the series, Lori Lightfoot‘s story emerges from single-digit polling to victory by the hard work of knocking on doors and sitting in a drab room at the Chicago Board of Elections defending the legitimacy of the signatures collected to launch her candidacy. Her consistent anti-corruption message and well-timed digs of her opposition carry the day. The final days of the race, including the runoff election against ultimate insider Toni Preckwinkle, are rushed in the documentary, though this editorial decision probably has to do with the final landslide result. Close games are more exciting in the fourth quarter, as Michael Jordan can attest.

The final episode, hastily compiled compared to the post-production rigor of the rest of the series, shifts the focus to how Chicago is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the same businesses from earlier in the series are shuttered or just barely hanging on. Death rates disproportionately impact the Black community. Viruses do not discriminate, but the spread follows the deeply entrenched systems that value some lives more than others.

In the midst of the relentless public health emergency, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, another Midwestern hub, leads to massive demonstrations and a change in the global conversation about police brutality and institutional racism. Defunding the police, in order to reallocate funds to the services that communities so desperately need, is no longer a fringe concept, as Chicagoans from every corner of the city take to the streets to chant. One of the crowning achievements of City So Real is that it shows that the fight for racial justice became adopted by people of all identities thanks to the tireless work of organizers that keeps the lives of those murdered by the police from being forgotten.

The City’s defining resilience shines throughout the series, even after the most challenging and heartbreaking scenes. From dancing on warm afternoons on Lake Michigan’s beaches to staring into Christmas window displays on frigid weekends to singing in a backyard with friends in the middle of a pandemic, Chicagoans keep making it work with attitude and joy.

Obama the man does not make an appearance in the documentary, but Obama the ideal and also the cautionary tale is never far from the screen. The 44th president went from Southside community organizer to University of Chicago law professor to Illinois-State then US Senator to the most powerful man in the world. Somehow he emerged from the city’s notoriously dirty political scene with all of the strategy and none of the stink. Some of the residents spotlighted have his pictures on their walls; yet, in quite a few instances, others take potshots and summon him to make unflattering comparisons. This only makes it all the more compelling that Obama included City So Real on his much-anticipated favorite movies list for 2020. His take on the documentary would be fascinating to read but would also surely signal how much American elections have fundamentally changed since his incredible rise to power from a city filled with myth, heartbreak, dreams fulfilled, and shattered.

A triumph from any perspective, City So Real, originally aired on the National Geographic channel, and available in the US on Hulu at this writing, should be required viewing for anyone seeking an honest portrayal of urban politics – and the many lives it touches.

Works Cited

Best of Michael Jordan’s Playoff Games | The Jordan Vault. YouTube.

Black Lives

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations“. The Atlantic. June 2014.

Demby, Gene. “Talking Housing Segregation and Chicago With WBEZ’s Natalie Y. Moore“. NPR. 11 April 2016.

Obama, Barack. Barack Obama’s Favorite Movies and TV Shows of 2020. Twitter. 18 December 2020.

Rumore, Kori. “‘Politicians ran Chicago into the ground.’ When Trump talks about Chicago — and the state of Illinois — we track it. McCalls. 28 October 2020.

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns. Random House. 2010.