‘Chicagoland’ producer hopes show spurs viewers to action: Mitchell

Written By By MARY MITCHELL Posted: 05/09/2014, 06:29am

I put off watching the CNN documentary, “Chicagoland.”

After all, it is painful enough bearing witness to the tragic homicides so many Chicago families have suffered.

But with only three episodes left, criticism surrounding the series has gotten louder.

Besides being characterized as a showcase for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the documentary has dramatically raised the profile of Elizabeth Dozier, the principal of Fenger High School in Roseland.

Dozier epitomizes the Herculean efforts that go into turning a troubled public high school around on a tight budget.

But the series also has come under fire for its laser focus on the deadly gun violence on the city’s South Side and a lack of positive black male role models.

Additionally, there is a stark contrast between how blacks and whites are portrayed. For instance, in one episode, grieving mothers were wailing on the South Side, while giddy Blackhawk fans were whooping it up on the North Side.

If that made you uncomfortable, you got the message, said Craig J. Harris, a producer and writer who worked on the project.

“The gun violence isn’t a result of race,” Harris said. “It’s a result of class disparity. When people aren’t afforded educational opportunities or economic opportunities, violent crime usually fills that void.”

Growing up, Harris lived in Englewood before his family moved further south to the Roseland community. His background gave him access to people at ground zero of the violence.

“I was able to talk with them and I told them I wanted to show the class disparity — the haves vs. the have nots,” Harris said. “Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of African Americans happen to be in that working-class poor, but this is a city that does seem to cater to the haves.” Harris said he wanted to “hold up a mirror to society.”

“There was a time when people were appalled by the image of ‘strange fruit ‘in the Jim Crow South but those are powerful images,” he said.

“There were people who begged Mamie Till to close the casket, but Mamie Till said: ‘No. No. I’m going to open the casket so the world can see what they did to my boy. There were people who cringed at the sight of African Americans being sprayed with fire hoses during the Selma marches, but those images buoyed the civil rights movement.”

Critics also complained that too few black male role models have been profiled in the series.

But Harris said one goal was to introduce new voices, like that of Eric Wilkins, a former gang member who turned his life around. Wilkins will be profiled in an upcoming segment.

In the remaining three segments, viewers also will see profiles of Isiah Thomas and Common.

But there was no way to take the sting out of the bloody images of young black men who were gunned down in the prime of their lives.

Chicagoland was filmed over an eight-month period, and includes footage of the funeral of Jermia Millsap, a 25-year-old Navy veteran who was shot to death on the West Side over a deadly July 4th weekend last year.

It’s not possible to put a positive spin on a story like that no matter who tells the story.

But Harris is hoping the disturbing images will spur viewers to do more than cringe.

“When you see these images, rather than being angered and saying: ‘Why are they showing that?’” Be compassionate and say: “I need to go down there and do something about that,” Harris said.

“I want people to question the plutocrats. I want people to question the power elite.”

Email: marym@suntimes.com

Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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