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'City So Real' review: At Sundance, Chicago politics and Chicago tribalism comes under Steve James' microscope

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 1/28/2020 By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

Chicago: “never a lovely so real,” as Nelson Algren wrote, and “never a city so real,” as author Alex Kotlowicz revised Algren’s sentiment about the beautiful woman with a broken nose.

In a further revision of the phrase, this week “City So Real,” the new limited series documentary from “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James, made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, a full time zone west of its subject. The documentary is seeking a buyer for streaming distribution; two of the four hourlong episodes produced by Participant Media and Kartemquin Films screened at Sundance Monday night.

I saw all four episodes in advance. Together, especially (but not exclusively) for Chicagoans, they make for a fine, expansive, sometimes despairing, cautiously hopeful experience. “City So Real” is a Rorschach inkblot test of how our city perceives itself, not a mosaic designed for easy consensus or agreement. It’s a tale of grubby politics, infamous violence and fortress-like neighborhoods so close together yet so apart, they’re like separate planets orbiting a single city by the lake, on the make and, in many proven instances, on the take.

There are many, many strands involved. The opening seconds feature a close-up of the gravestone of Laquan McDonald, fatally shot 16 times in 2014 by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke’s trial; two-term mayor Rahm Emanuel’s unsuccessful bid to keep the telltale dash-cam video a private matter; the widespread community outrage; all this is more than enough for a four-hour documentary on its own.

Filmmaker James and co-cinematographer Jackson James, the director’s son and colleague, wind that strand, among others, around the recent, jam-packed Chicago mayoral race and subsequent run-off election. En route to the historic Lori Lightfootvictory, marking the city’s first openly gay and first African-American female mayor, much of the local media sold the developing story as a contest between Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (forever chained to her written notes in “City So Real” footage) vs. Illinois Comptroller Susana A. Mendoza.The Tribune endorsed Bill Daley; the Sun-Times backed Lightfoot.

As “City So Real” progresses, Lightfoot’s prominence in the series increases, subtly but naturally. In Episode 3, in and among director James’ patient, sometimes tedious account of petition challenges (some of them hilariously contentious) at the Chicago Board of Elections James and his camera join Lightfoot on a commute from her Logan Square bungalow, as she’s on the phone with a campaign colleague. At one point Lightfoot she goes off on the city’s long, ignoble history of aldermanic corruption and the 1990s federal anti-corruption probe known as the Silver Shovel investigation. “Every single one off those dumb-f—-s got caught,” Lightfoot says, coolly, marveling at quid pro quo so epically blatant.

The four episodes traverse a broad array of Chicago neighborhoods, parades, picnic grounds, drugstores, hair emporiums, living rooms, bars and, at one point, the Soldier Field tailgating preceding the playoff game showcasing the unluckiest field goal attempt in recent Bears memory. Locator maps pop up on screen at the start of a new vignette.

Another key strand in “City So Real” connects straight to the racial divisions in the nation at large. James and company strike gold in their contrasting footage of two haircut joints: the South Shore neighborhood’s Sideline Studio salon (now closed) and, in Bridgeport, Joe’s 26th Street Barber Shop, frequented by retired Chicago Police Department employees.

At Sideline, an inflammatory argument breaks out on camera between a postal worker and, a generation younger, his barber, as they debate African-American manhood, discipline, family dynamics. They’re screaming at each other one minute, back to business and in the barber’s chair the next, laughing it off.

In Bridgeport, meanwhile, three regulars stop in for some doughnuts and a little retired-cop humor. (At one point one of them relays a stunningly heartless police shooting joke; “City So Real” will not please most Bridgeports residents, I’m guessing.) One of the men, not identified on screen, starts an anecdote: “I know a guy that shot a guy.” In the space of maybe a minute, concluding with the line “So I’m happy now,” James captures the bone-deep bitterness so many in law enforcement feel about the judicial system — as well as the bone-deep fear of police so many Chicagoans experience, every ordinary day.

Throughout “City So Real,” another story emerges, that of a city in which half the power structure and citizenry feels a loss of control, of the way things used to work, while the other half pushes toward a change in the weather. We see then-mayor Emanuel unable to quiet down student protesters fighting a forbidding new police academy training project on the West Side. In a penthouse dinner party scene (featuring, among others, Tribune theater critic Chris Jones), ex-CEO of Playboy Enterprises and political strategist Christie Hefner convenes the sort of salon dinner that, as she puts it, wistfully, “no one seems to do anymore.” Closer to the ground, in an unexpectedly emotional scene with Lyft driver Tracey Champion, we hear a heart-sickening account of the racist abuse she’s had to put up with “ever since Trump got into office.”

This is a lot for one limited series, and I haven’t even gotten to the Lincoln Yards development controversy, or the Lincoln Park interviews in which James asks passers-by about the Jason Van Dyke trial. It may be directorial selectivity, but the first few answers suggest the footage was gathered on “Privileged North Sider Disengagement Day.” Yet little in James’ humane, clear-eyed approach and shaping of all this material suggests an agenda, or an interest in cheap shots. These people are our people; the anger, disdain, love and their often wary coexistence with everybody else is ours, too.

I love the offhanded details, such as when, 20 minutes into Episode 1, in the midst of a Laquan McDonald street protest, a man confronts, at top volume, a policeman. In the same unbroken shot a younger protester speaks her piece, using an entirely different rhetorical approach. I love the way Ed Burke’s fedora and Lori Lightfoot’s fedora engage in an unspoken battle of the Chicago political fedoras. I love the extended, beautifully escalating square-off, at the Board of Elections, between mayoral candidate Ja’Mal Green and fellow candidate Willie Wilson’s right-hand man, Rickey Hendon.

The fourth and final episode feels both rushed and unfinished, for reasons I’m still trying to figure out; maybe by that point in the multi-strand narrative, the only recourse James had was to focus wholly on Lightfoot’s victory and leave the rest of the city’s issues as a kind of dangling modifier, waiting for the final word that never comes. On the other hand, James knows full well that an easy final word, or a suggestion that any civic improvement is ever easy, is a sucker’s game.

You could argue that “City So Real” demanded a bigger canvas, along the lines of James’ previous documentary series, the 10-hour “America to Me,” dealing with a year in the life of Oak Park River Forest High School. On the other hand, four hours has a better chance of a wider viewership, once the right streaming platform comes calling.

Labeling “City So Real” is the Chicago self-portrait of the new century is a start. The finish, as James reminds us throughout, remains up to those who rule, live and die here.


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