‘City So Real’ Is Chicago, Laid Bare

Chicago has become so infamous in its headlines and news stories that it has become a character in American popular culture. The violence and lore surrounding the city overshadow the people and the city’s vibrant communities. Yet, there is beauty and warmth in this city of neighborhoods. It is a city of good food and memorable moments for people who’ve grown up there and those who’ve made it home. Chicago has a deep history, entrenched in the stories of immigrants, notorious gangsters, and some of our nation’s most horrendous racist policies. 

'City So Real' by Steve James, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institut
‘City So Real’ by Steve James, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | National Geographic

‘City So Real’ finds Chicago on the brink

In recent years, due to horrific gun violence and political corruption, Chicago has taken on the label of the murder capital of the nation (though it’s not), but no one wants to understand why. In his riveting five-part docuseries City So Real, director Steve James lets the city, and its people speak for themselves. The beautifully crafted work is constructed around the 2018 murder trial of former police officer, Jason Van Dyke, for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. This occurs following the cover-up by the Chicago Police Department and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and amid the crowded 2018 mayoral race, which at one point had no less than 21 different candidates. James zooms into the city, its people, and various neighbors often buried underneath the clickbait headlines.

‘City So Real’ gives its audience an authentic view of Chicago

From the moment the series opens in episode one, “Welcome to Chicago,” it’s clear that James is invested in getting to the heart of the issue. Chicago is not a monolith. It is “the great American city,” but the lives lived, often within mere city blocks of each other, are often worlds apart. From Bucktown on the Northside to Jackson Park on the city’s South Side, James orients his audience visually with a city map and a neighborhood locator. Depending on who’s on-screen, from their ethnicity, and even the environment around them, he is careful to display the varied textures of the neighborhoods, that make up this one town.

A film would not have given this story the same amount of justice and grace. Due to to the length of the series, the camera lingers with subjects in barbershops, courtrooms, and political buildings allowing the city’s residents to express themselves and their points of view. In City So Real, everyone’s opinion is valid. In allowing such differing perspectives, Chicago comes to life. Hour after hour, James unpacks a legacy of a city that used to have some much promise against the stunning issues that are driving out people in droves. 

‘City So Real’ has never been more timely

It’s almost jarring how timely City So Real is. The first four episodes watch the mayoral race play out as well as the historic verdict in the Laquan McDonald murder trial. Episode five, “You Gotta Make It or You Gotta Take It,” picks up in 2020 as the city is grappling with the coronavirus ( COVID-19) pandemic and more social unrest following the murder of George Floyd with newly minted may Mayor Lori Lightfoot at the helm. 

Though lengthy, City So Real is more than worth your investment. This is Chicagoans sharing the most intimate aspects of themselves and the city. James does not seek to find any answers to the city’s seemingly insurmountable issues. However, he does allow a platform and a moment of visibility for people who have been so often cast in the shadows. More than that, the miniseries proves that the story of this majestic Midwestern City is far from being over.

National Geographic will broadcast the five-part series Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 pm ET. City So Real will stream on Hulu on Oct. 30.