Hot Docs Review: 'Hoop Dreams' Filmmaker Examines the Nuances of Chicago Life in 'City So Real' Directed by Steve James
Published Jun 09, 2020Laquan McDonald, a Black 17-year-old, was shot 16 times while turned away from the Chicago Police Department officer who murdered him in 2014. There are a lot of details in that sentence to break down, not least of which is the number of times Officer Jason Van Dyke fired at the teen. A number that large is difficult to process.
A moment in the new documentary City So Real provides a sobering illustration of the situation. Radio host Maze Jackson ends a segment on the killing and the subsequent court case with a sounder made up of 16 gunshots. Played in a row, they're interminable and awful.
The story is taking place post-Michael Brown and before George Floyd, in a world where the murder of Black people by police is prevalent enough that, in the series, an officer interrupting a rally has to ask the gathered which killing they're protesting. The crisis isn't a single defining point for City So Real, nor does it entirely define Chicago, the setting and broad topic of this new four-part series by Steve James. But it is one that animates the work of activists and citizens throughout the series, as well as viewers watching today — a reminder of the continuum that's brought North American society to this point.
The director of Hoop Dreams and Life Itself returns in his role as chronicler of lives in the Second City, hanging this four-hour-plus work lightly on the 2019 mayoral election while casting a broader net for the issues concerning Chicagoans. Among the events and individuals chronicled are countless protests, at least two parades, a police shooting trial, and over a dozen mayoral candidates.
Characters abound in the ranks of mayoral hopefuls. Willie Wilson is a businessman attractive to Republicans, with art in his home picturing him with Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr. A progressive voice belongs to Amara Enyia, a local organizer with the support of Chance the Rapper, a choice endorsement in Chicago. (Whether she wants to accept the support of MAGA-era Kanye West is a question discussed in the series.) The filmmakers also have tremendous access to Lori Lightfoot, the eventual successor to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Some candidates are implicated in the events of the day. Garry McCarthy was the superintendent of the CPD at the time McDonald was killed, and his candidacy chugs along even as Van Dyke's trial is inescapable for some in the city. (Although white folks seem to have no problem escaping it, based on the interviews here.)
Police violence and intrusion extend into Latinex neighbourhoods of the city and beyond, as do questions of gentrification, the latter typified by the pushback against Lincoln Yards. A large-scale development promises to erect skyscrapers in a small neighbourhood along with Live Nation-supported venues set to compete with existing community fixtures.
This all manifests in the mayoral campaigns in broad terms, with conservative candidates like Wilson, cop-friendly politicians like McCarthy, local Democratic mainstays like frontrunner Toni Preckwinckle, and the array of progressives like Enyia and Lightfoot.
These threads and tangents are smoothly layered throughout the runtime, a stretch of hours peppered with small details. A visit with a high-society dog walker or with a nutraceutical retailer feels as natural as the political dealing onscreen. City So Real finds and highlights sublimely unique moments, like a homeless campaign worker singing "The First Noel" to a diner patron with no clear reason, without much need to justify their existence.
The long form of the work also allows for lengthy tangents to weave in and out. One running example is Edward Burke, an elder alderman noticeable immediately for his pinstripe suits. We follow his story in moments, from his filing for reelection to charges of extortion coming against him to his eventual victory –– inevitable, seemingly, for an old powerhouse.
Part of the story –– and part of the story for every political event in the city –– is the Chicago Way, the self-dealing party system in the city that protects the interests of old powerhouses. People on camera keep saying they want a different form of politics, but, for so many of them, the Chicago Way is a mythology they love to perpetuate. Look to William Daley, a man of questionable ideas, drifting through the mayoral race at least in part on the recognition of two former mayors who share his last name.
The filmmakers resist being sucked in entirely by the Chicago Way. They can't cover the city without considering it, but it's not their focus. They maintain a personal view of the city, which is where their real ability lies. Their interviews don't feel like interviews, and people stopped on the street don't feel like quick one-offs. City So Real can make a couple waiting for their car feel like natural subjects, even if one imagines they came to be in the series by a happy accident.
The people working these cameras can make a Lyft driver in a Care Bears onesie open up about the daily impact of racism on her life and can make a living room of white people feel at ease enough to open up with their real thoughts about integrated schools. The currents running through the city, of police violence, economic exploitation, and more intersecting with the platforms of this group of politicians, are shown to have human impacts, on people who are open and with whom we can empathize.
The work draws it all together, finding resonances in similar actions, finding divergent stories to follow in one location, and, if all else fails, zeroing in on a news report on a nearby TV set. City So Real is a flowing piece that feels half its length for the ease of its storytelling.
Early on, Chicago is called "the American city at a crossroads." In City So Real, many roads are converging and are drawn together artfully. As reported recently in the Chicago Tribune, James has returned to documenting these crossroads, following some of the characters and locations of City So Real in the wake of the beginning of the Floyd protests. James told the paper of his desire "to show it all, in an unvarnished way." His city and his subjects could do far worse than James' version of unvarnished.
Hot Docs Film Festival has moved online for its 2020 edition. Buy tickets over at the festival's website. (Participant Media)