'City So Real': TV Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
An exceptional and substantive exploration of an American city.

Steve James' latest Chicago-set documentary is a four-hour dive into the city's 2019 mayoral election.

Settling in to watch a Steve James documentary can be like taking your place at a 15-course prix fixe dinner from a master chef. From the outside, you can worry it might be excessive, but if you trust the chef and know they have ingredients they want to cook with, you can be confident that 14 courses would be too few and 16 would be too many.

The Hoop Dreams documentarian has been making a push into TV in recent years and his 10-part Starz series America to Me was my favorite show of 2018. James' latest series, the four-part City So Real, arrived at Sundance this year without distribution, but I can't imagine that will last very long. Though it lacks the sort of young viewer hook that Starz hoped would make America to Me a hit, City So Real is another gripping topical smorgasbord from James, using the 2019 Chicago mayoral election as a peg to cover such a wide range of subjects it actually lives up to its ambitious subtitle, "The American City at a Crossroads."

Certainly, the main crossroads are the political direction the city will go in the aftermath of Rahm Emanuel's surprising decision not to seek re-election, opening the door for a race featuring at least a dozen candidates, some representing the entrenched establishment (like Bill "Yes, those Daleys" Daley) and others offering the hope of outsider voices. Whether establishment or outsider, all of the candidates are working within the unique political environment of Chicago and the complex methodology that makes up what people keep calling "the Chicago way." James follows the candidates as they canvas, debate and, in a process that proves both ridiculous and ridiculously good TV, face the obscure bickering of petition signature appeals.

James has good access to many, but clearly not all, of the candidates and you can sense what interests him. Whether he's drawn to anything in businessman Willie Wilson's ideology, James is attracted to Wilson's glad-handing and his ability to work the system with the help  of master manipulator Rickey "Hollywood" Hendon. James is obviously drawn to young candidates like Amara Enyia and Neal Sales-Griffin, but that doesn't mean he can't find interest in ultra-wonky Paul Vallas, whose slick fixer Phillip A. Bradley is, like Hendon, basically a character straight out of The Good Fight. And then there's Lori Lightfoot, potentially the first black woman and first LGBTQ Chicago mayor, who starts off almost as an afterthought, but begins steadily inching up in the polls.

Back to the idea of "crossroads," James is also chronicling Chicago on the eve of the trial of the police officer charged with killing Laquan McDonald. No part of the city is unimpacted.

We see those varied impacts because perhaps the biggest crossroad is one of not-so-nebulous identity — whether Chicago aspires to be a global tourist city or a more Midwestern city of neighborhoods. Rather than following a handful of select heroes in addition to the mayoral candidates, James makes "sprawl" into the documentary's real hero, going from neighborhood to neighborhood capturing moments and voices. Occasionally these voices are heard in familiar locations (James loves a good barbershop or beauty parlor) and sometimes they're doing familiar things (marveling at the Marshall Field's Christmas displays or tailgating before a Bears game) — but mostly it's people living their lives, as active a repudiation of the city's "murder capital" reputation as possible.

Looking at Chicago almost neighborhood-by-neighborhood, James — shooting the project with son Jackson — tackles some of the different needs and frustrations that drive different enclaves, whether predominantly white (differentiated by myriad immigrant groups), black, Indian or Latinx. How do different neighborhoods view the police? How are they approaching gentrification? How are the neighborhood demographics shifting and how does that impact the city's alderman races?

As was the case with America to Me, there's the thing City So Real is primarily about, that being the mayoral election, and then there are the things James wants to talk about surrounding that topic. It's undeniably ambitious and it's unavoidable that with four hours to work with instead of 10, there are questions that City So Real can't get to, corners of the city that, despite James' best intentions, simply didn't make the cut.

City So Real is perhaps the first Steve James project to ever feel a hair rushed. The series basically stops at the first round of voting, which happened less than a year ago, and I'm guessing James wanted to get this project out before the real-life story is written on Chicago's new mayor, so City So Real can stand as a commentary on process and not the winning candidate. So maybe the momentum to the election doesn't arc as smoothly as it could and maybe individual episodes could use a little internal trimming, which is possible since the last two episodes (the first two premiered at Sundance) were still rough cuts.

The reality is that I'd have happily watched 10 hours of City So Real, which never drags and never makes bureaucracy or procedure look boring. Without prettying anything up, it's an advertisement for Chicago and urban planning alike. Maybe that won't be juicy enough for a Starz, but I'm sure somebody in this Peak TV landscape could make use of a limited series this substantive, with this many conversations to spark.

Company: Participant, Kartemquin Films

Director: Steve James

Producers: Zak Piper, Steve James

Editors: David E. Simpson, Steve James

Cinematographer: Jackson James, Steve James

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Indie Episodic)