‘City So Real’ leaves nothing left out in its portrayal of all of Chicago

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By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

National Geographic to broadcast five-part critically acclaimed series “City So Real” From Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Steve James in an unprecedented one-night, five-hour, commercial-free event airing Thursday, October 29, at 7:00 p.m. ET/PT; 6:00 p.m. CST

Twice Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Steve James (“America to Me,” “Hoop Dreams”) and his longtime producing partner Zak Piper (“Life Itself” and “The Interrupters”), returns with another exceptional chronicle of our vibrant, yet deeply fractured, metropolis.

The fascinating and complex portrait of contemporary Chicago delivers a deep, multifaceted look into the soul of a quintessentially American city, set against the backdrop of its history-making 2019 mayoral election.

“City So Real” features candid interviews with residents throughout the city, north and south, east and west, and tracks the candidates and everyday citizens, from protests to penthouses, reflecting both the divisions that separate us and the issues that unite us.

The series captures Chicago’s indomitable spirit as well as its seemingly insurmountable challenges. It is a gritty and loving depiction of a quintessentially American city that is at once fiercely unique and a microcosm of the nation ⎯ and our world ⎯ as a whole.

The series begins in the haze of mid-summer 2018 as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, embroiled in accusations of a cover-up related to the police shooting of an African-American teenager, Laquan McDonald, shocks the city by announcing he won’t seek reelection. An unprecedented 21 candidates emerge in a diverse and crowded field as they engage in a no-holds-barred battle for a chance to shape the city’s uncertain future.

The final episode of the series picks up a year after the mayoral election in 2020, as the city simultaneously grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread social upheaval following the police killing of George Floyd. An already fractured city is further divided by the economic, political and social fallout, which plays out on the city streets as police clash with protesters, bringing rise to a generational moment that promises to change the city forever.

A woman talks to a police officer during a protest. (Chicago Story Film, LLC)

Episode One – “Welcome to Chicago.” Facing a growing chorus of activists, incumbent Rahm Emanuel must choose whether to run for re-election against a large and diverse field of candidates in the most contested mayor’s race in Chicago history. Influencing his decision is the beginning of the high-profile trial for the murder of Laquan McDonald by a white police officer.

“City So Real” is spot on in its coverage of Chicagoans across the city, gathering their opinions about everything that affects them. As noted above, the growing number of candidates who run for the office of mayor is mind boggling. It’s weird watching it on film, even though I lived through those times. Some of the candidates only announced their intentions after Emanuel decided that he wasn’t going to run. And the fact that he pulled his hat out of the ring sat very well with many Black Chicagoans, who were livid that he held onto the McDonald tapes until after the 2015 city elections, lest he lose office.

My eyes opened at all the situations covered in the first episode—from a barber shop on the South Side, to Lincoln Park, to hearing from the owners of Bucktown’s The Hideout, who were complaining about Lincoln Yards and the 606 Trail, to folks in Bronzeville enjoying another annual Bud Billiken Day Parade and well into other parts of the city.

Mayoral candidates (from left) Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle, and Paul Vallas at the Chicago Sun-Times debate. (Chicago Story Film, LLC)

Episode Two – “Blood Sport.” The Laquan McDonald trial unfolds and dominates media attention. With Rahm Emanuel now out of the race, a record 21 mayoral candidates submit their petitions to replace him. They must navigate the highly politicized and contentious petition challenge process to make the ballot. Chicago is famous for its rough-and-tumble politics that is considered a “blood sport.”

Episode Three – “With All Due Respect to the Candidate.” During a bitterly cold Chicago winter, the petition process results in a mayoral ballot with a record 14 candidates. A historic verdict is reached in the Laquan McDonald murder trial, and the longest-tenured city alderman in Chicago history is federally indicted on corruption charges.

Rickey Hendon loses his temper after attempting to withdraw his challenge to Neal Sales-Griffin at a signature challenge hearing. (Chicago Story Film, LLC)

Episode Four – “If You Want to Break the Machine.” No clear front-runner emerges in the historic mayoral race. Over a dozen candidates intensify attacks on each other and jockey for votes, culminating in a surprising and historic outcome that promises to profoundly shape the city’s uncertain future.

Willie Wilson and his team march at the Bud Billiken Parade. (Chicago Story Film, LLC)

Dr. Willie Wilson and his generosity kicks off this episode, as he travels the community and from church to church, leaving substantial offerings in his wake. Other mayoral candidates are featured, including Daley, who solicits the help of former Vice President Al Gore, while he campaign stomps.

The historical corruption associated with Chicago is featured, as well, with notes about the 99-year parking meter deal that has turned out to be not such a good thing for Chicago drivers and residents.

Episode Five – “You Gotta Make It or You Gotta Take It.” One year after the mayoral election, the mayor and residents must grapple with both the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread social upheaval following the death of George Floyd. An already fractured city is further divided as police clash with protesters, giving rise to a generational moment that promises to change the city forever.

Say what you will about Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but I know that she didn’t bargain for the events of 2020. None of us did. Watching her proposed budget speech on October 21, she was visibly pained about the work that the police officers have to do, mentioning the case of the 7-year-old girl who was murdered. Sad! And equally, I’m sure top cop David Brown didn’t imagine all the chaos that would ensue after he accepted his position.

National Geographic also commits to airing “I am a voter.” PSAs during the broadcast of “City So Real” and across the network leading up to the election as part of Walt Disney Television’s “Civic Engagement Campaign.”

All five episodes will be available the next day on Hulu – Friday, October 30.

Take a look at the trailer: https://youtu.be/QyQ85DEVpbc.

For more information, visit Citysoreal.film or follow them on Twitter using @NatGeoPR.

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