At Sundance, Steve James says Chicago series aims to capture ‘the American urban experience’

Director’s four-part documentary ‘City So Real’ juxtaposes the 2019 mayoral election with public outrage over the Laquan McDonald murder.

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Chicago mayoral candidates Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle and Paul Vallas in a scene from “City So Real.”

Participant Media

PARK CITY, Utah —Following his critically acclaimed “America to Me,” a 10-episode documentary series set at Oak Park-River Forest High School, Chicago filmmaker Steve James continues his prolific creative streak with a series focused even more sharply on his adopted hometown.

“City So Real,” which had its world premiere Monday night at the Sundance Film Festival, pays loving homage to the city of Chicago and its famously vibrant residents, set against the unfolding action of the 2019 mayoral election.

While following some of the campaigns, the film crew captures not only the passion of citizens as they process the election but also the fury over the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and the subsequent cover-up.

“Even though this is a film about Chicago, it is very much a film about America, the American urban experience,” James said in an interview Monday at Sundance with producer Zak Piper. “... The things that are bedeviling Chicago — relationships between police and minority communities, gentrification, politics, a broke government — these are all things America is grappling with everywhere, and it’s particularly potent in Chicago. They don’t call Chicago the quintessential American city for nothing.

“One thing we hope people take away from the series is that Chicago, like a lot of America, has some deeply seated problems: racism, segregation. … But there’s also these incredibly passionate forces trying to make change. … I’m really inspired by young people today who are fed up with the status quo.”

For years, James had wanted to do a film portrait of Chicago but needed “the right time to do that when there was something really significant at work.” When the trial of McDonald’s killer was scheduled in the midst of a mayoral campaign, it occurred to James that “Chicago is at a crossroads and that this is the time to do that portrait.”

Filming began on July 4, 2018, and on the second day of shooting, anti-violence protestors shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway.

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Filmmaker Steve James.

Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel had few challengers at that point. One of them was Lori Lightfoot, and “we were chasing her from the start,” James said. His crew spotted her at the Dan Ryan march.

“I hadn’t even talked to her yet, and she said, ‘I know you wanted to talk to me.’ I was really hopeful that it was going to work out great, but then we got stonewalled for the longest time by her press people. But then we were just persistent.”

After Emanuel surprisingly dropped out of the race, established candidates including Toni Preckwinkle, Bill Daley and Susana Mendoza stepped in. Initially an underdog, Lightfoot came from behind to win in a stunning upset.

“What I found really interesting about Lori was that folks who were supporting all of these different candidates ultimately ended up supporting her,” Piper said. “She was bringing together a coalition of people who were more on the right of politics and people who were more of activists who were further to the left.”

James added, “The candidates who were considered front-runners, they all had baggage. I think Lori emerged because she was taking on the Machine, she was smart, and she was an unknown. She’s getting her baggage now.”

Initially he decided with Piper and funder Participant Media to create a traditional film, but after seeing the sheer volume of footage and the deluge of newsworthy occurrences, they decided that a mini-series was a better format.

After what James calls the “coming-out party” for “City So Real” at Sundance, negotiations will begin on a broadcast outlet for the four-episode series. It won’t be Starz, which premiered “America to Me” in 2018. Its executives, James said, “aren’t sure what they want to do in terms of documentary miniseries going forward.”

The Oak Park series, he said, continues to be shown in schools “and has a real life in that area where it can do the most good. It has a very vibrant life going.”

Sheri Flandersis a Chicago freelance writer.

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