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Series shines welcome spotlight on dozens of unsolved slayings of Black women in Chicago

“The Hunt for the Chicago Strangler” on Discovery+ is, in some ways, an indictment of police and city officials, and perhaps against anyone who has turned a deaf ear to this tragedy that occurred beneath our noses.

Protestors lead the way with a banner in the “We Walk for Her March” march held on Tuesday, March 22, 2021.
Protestors lead the way with a banner declaring “We Walk for Her” during a march earlier this year to call attention to the dozens of unsolved slayings of Black women in Chicago.
John W. Fountain

The title is sexy, the story isn’t.

It is gory — horrific, even. Not your average tearjerker but a real gut-puncher that touches the soul. One of America’s most glistening cities serves as a perhaps unlikely backdrop for a new three-part documentary series about the mostly unsolved strangulation murders in Chicago of 51 women, mostly African American, from 2001 to 2018.

Spoiler alert: “The Hunt for the Chicago Strangler,” produced for Discovery+ by Canadian-based Entertainment One, doesn’t really break new ground.

And for anyone who has followed the story — which, although undeniably underreported, has gained traction in the last few years in the local press, thanks to the diligence of some of the victims’ families, community activists and others — it may indeed fill in some blanks. But it will not, in the end, bring the cases any closer to being solved.

And yet, none of this diminishes the series’ worth as a stirring, necessary narrative and investigative insertion into the larger fundamental discussion of why Black women’s lives — and murders — specifically in these cases, in Chicago, still don’t matter. So, my advice: Keep it locked.

The series roars, even as its matter-of-fact, precise storytelling snakes from the Far South Side to the West Side, capturing the voices of families teary and deeply broken over their loved one’s death and the absence of justice. An assorted cast of characters help shape the history and context of this modern-day horror, in which the slain women have been asphyxiated or strangled, discarded like trash, set on fire or dismembered.

It is must-see TV and, in some ways, an indictment of police and city officials, and perhaps anyone who has turned a deaf ear to this tragedy that occurred beneath our noses, and that still, to date, has caused no massive public outcry.

The documentary is not apologetic. Avoids pointing fingers. Raises good questions. Shines the light on sometimes uncomfortable truths by holding up a mirror to a Chicago divided by race and class. And on neighborhoods beyond the Magnificent Mile, where the killer or killers disposed of their victims in alleys, vacant lots, abandoned buildings.

The series is compelling, seamless in its vignettes of each family woven within the timeline of the killings. It is explicit in exploring the city’s long history of racial discrimination, the exodus of the Black middle class from the South and West sides, leaving behind the poorest of the poor, those for whom Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson coined the phrase “The Truly Disadvantaged.”

The documentary, vibrant in its cinematography and conveyance of emotion and incalculable human loss, includes snippets of home video and firsthand historic context of Black Chicago.

From the Great Migration and Dr. King’s effort in 1966 — to bring attention to the plight of America’s Black poor by moving with his family to an apartment on Chicago’s West Side — to current scenes of life and also lack. From Englewood to North Lawndale, where Sears, Roebuck and Co. and other businesses, once an economic lifeline for some Black families seeking a slice of the American dream, have long since faded.

The documentary seems to leave almost no stone unturned, speaking with longtime community activists, police top brass, journalists and Thomas Hargrove, whose Murder Accountability Project has theorized, using a computer algorithm, that at least one serial killer is behind the slayings.

At its most powerful, the documentary moves in close to capture the stories of the women, with precision — intimate stories of flesh, blood, heart and soul as told by their families, for whom the wounds are still fresh. Among them are the father and daughter of Angela Ford, the first victim, strangled in 2001. Their visible sorrow is our window into the lingering loss exacerbated by the absence of justice surrounding these cases.

Also among the survivors interviewed are the families of Nancie Walker and Gwendolyn Williams, as well as Riccardo Holyfield, whose cousin Reo Renee Holyfield was among the slain women.

They are, for me, familiar faces that I or my students at Roosevelt University encountered during our year-long project in 2020 to humanize the women, spurred by the absence of media attention.

I was approached to be interviewed for this documentary but declined, respectfully. I wasn’t interested in being a part of any project titled, “… The Chicago Strangler.” For this story, at its core, isn’t about the killer or killers. It is about the women killed.

When this documentary shines its brightest, that’s exactly what the story’s about.