- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
On the surface, City So Real, the latest documentary from Steve James and the Chicago-based collective Kartemquin Films, is about the 2019 Chicago mayoral election. But in typical fashion, James (Hoop Dreams) digs deep, exploring the city neighborhood by neighborhood, from the penthouse suites to the ground-level nail salons.
In his review, THR’s Daniel Fienberg called it “another gripping topical smorgasbord from James,” and recently spoke to the multihyphenate filmmaker as well as the five-part documentary’s producer and sound recordist, Zak Piper, and one of the series’ subjects, mayoral candidate Amara Enyia, for THR Presents, powered by Vision Media.
As Fienberg points out, the filmmakers were thrown a curveball early on when the Windy City’s incumbent, Rahm Emanuel, dropped out of the race, leaving a wide open field, from entrenched establishment names like William M. Daley, he of the dynastic Chicago political machine, to outsiders like Enyia, a progressive activist whose parents immigrated from Nigeria.
“There was some relief because I didn’t think we were going to get in with Rahm,” James tells Fienberg about how he needed to pivot once Emanuel, who wasn’t granting access to the filmmakers, dropped out. “But also I think it was more exciting, frankly, because there was this incredibly wide array of people who wanted to be mayor of Chicago, and suddenly it was a free-for-all. And then that, of course, led to a number of heavyweights entering the race because Rahm had stepped out.”
In terms of the candidates, some granted access, while others — once they realized James’ crew was not a media outlet that could provide an instant sound bite — kept their distance. Enyia harbored no such qualms.
‘It was just the fact that this is the thing that I’m doing and it would provide an insight into what it looks like to run as an insurgent candidate,” she says. “I did know that it was not going to be out before election day, so there was no incentive for me to do it in the hopes that it would create more visibility.”
At the time, Chicago was roiling from its own #BLM moment, with protests sparked by the killing of a Black teenager, Laquan McDonald, by a white police officer (Jason Van Dyke), which James and company incorporated into the film by including portions of the trial.
“Once episode five came around — which originally, it was supposed to stop at four episodes, and because we hadn’t sold it, and because of 2020, the pandemic and the George Floyd murder, and all the subsequent protesting around the country, I think people started to see the series a little differently,” says Piper. “They could more clearly see how the story we were telling was a mirror of the larger country.”
Adds James: “Everything that was going on in Chicago, before the phrase ‘defund the police’ was popular, you saw protesters in our earlier episodes trying to stop the funding of the Police Academy on the West Side for all the same reasons that the Defund the Police movement was about.”
At the end of the day, the filmmakers were interested less in topical matters than presenting a panoramic portrait of a city that is every bit as dynamic and multicultural as the cities in whose shadow it’s often placed: New York and Los Angeles.
“It makes me think,” says Enyia of the series. “It makes me see the issues that we have as a city in a new light, in a way that not even I had seen before. It also made me feel contemplative about the city, and the future of the city.”
For James, one of Chicago’s most ardent champions, the series is both a matter of local pride and a reason to take stock about matters of representation.
“I hope Chicagoans look at this and see at least a couple of things,” he says: “One is they see the incredible passion that Chicagoans have for this city, and for some people watching it, that that extends to all neighborhoods. That there are people who care about this city deeply, and live and die with this city deeply, that don’t look like them. Because America has a real problem with that, and Chicago has a real problem with that.”
This edition of THR Presents is brought to you by Nat Geo TV.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day