“Hogtown” is the most original film made in Chicago about Chicago to date. Writer-director Daniel Nearing evokes race and writers in a mesmerizing tone poem, a follow-up to his lyrically crafted “Chicago Heights” (2009).
Set in “Chicago Circa 1919,” this experimental black-and-white etude opens with a snowy nightscape. The marquee of the Chicago Theatre cues a whodunit about Ambrose Greenaway, a white “filthy rich” Chicagoan who vanishes after selling his theater chain. Nearing, who teaches Independent Film and Digital Imaging at Governors State University, first heard of the never-solved case of a Toronto theater-owner named Ambrose Small when studying literature at the University of Toronto.
Arts agencies in both cities helped fund “Hogtown,” a nickname for Toronto that predates “hog butcher for the world” from Carl Sandburg’s 1916 poem “Chicago.” Nearing scripts roles for Chicago authors Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, boxer Jack Dempsey and Mayor William Hale Thompson. Besides contributing lyrics for gospel numbers on the soundtrack, the filmmaker places on screen such inventive verse as “The snow is a sirocco of dandelion down rising off a prairie of endless extinction.”
Herman Wilkins plays two roles: DeAndre Son Carter, a black detective from the Cottage Grove police station, and Marquis Coleman, a homeless man framed for killing Greenaway. Chicago’s infamous 1919 race riot is graphically re-created with actors superimposed on newspaper pages. An end title cites homicides in “the public way” of Chicago: “The vast majority of the victims are male, young and black.”
Historical details include Dr. Chase’s Nerve Food and a faux newsreel with florid narration lifted from a 1919 National Geographic article titled “Chicago Today and Tomorrow: A City Whose Industries Have Changed the Food Status of the World and Transformed the Economic Situation of a Billion People.”
Nearing (who will appear at all four Chicago screenings) arrays exquisite screen design, archival imagery and spoken-word style monologues for a timely inquiry into Chicago’s vexed past.
9:23 Films presents a film written and directed by Daniel Nearing. In English, Spanish and Mandarin, with English subtitles. Running time: 109 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at Gene Siskel Film Center.