October 29, 2020

By Lapacazo Sandoval

Contributing Writer


Like so many cities in the United States of America, Chicago is a city at the crossroads. In the new documentary “City So Real,” directed by Steve James he starts the journey by flashing on the screen a map of the city broken into neighborhoods. Told in four episodes, it’s a complicated city existing in a deeply flawed country. 

Let’s set the facts as presented in “City So Real.” Chicago is in the middle of a crisis. There is a lot of gun violence in this city. Police shootings and murders and gang violence have led to deeper racial and economic divides. 

Trump and his administration and their support of racial hate groups continue to throw gasoline on the roaring fire that is Chicago 2020.  


Citizens are leaving the inner city for other metropolitan locales with a dream of finding safer, more affordable homes and better jobs [shot before COVID-19]. It’s a historical fact that the city

has long been ravaged by political corruption. And in 2019, the mayoral election marks voters’ best opportunity to put a dent into the legacy of abuse. 

Imagine an election with an unprecedented 21 candidates, an interesting way for James’ four-hour series to maneuver. 
I love breaking down the word — history — which is “his” and “story” and we all know who “he is” and we all know that a story isn't necessarily the truth. “City So Real” focuses on more than just Chicago’s his-tory and in many ways (even above Washington, D.C.) Chicago is an American city. Chicago’s problems are America’s problems. It’s that simple. “They” want us divided and fighting and “they” are masterful at that division. Think of the credo echoed by many kingdoms around the world: divide and conquer.

By voice air time to the candidates who really want to re-shape the future and the residents forced to live in the difficult present, James finds as many connections as he does contradictions, and I say, bravo. It’s a hopeful look at our future despite the (many) warnings that we can’t afford to ignore — not again. There is a saying, that history repeats itself, and I say, let’s smash that nonsense into smithereens. 

Chicago does not make becoming mayor easy. In order to appear on the ballot, a candidate must submit a petition with 12,500 valid registered voters’ signatures. That’s much more than most large cities like Los Angeles and New York (500 and 3,750, respectively). An interesting fact (and this is fascinating) it’s even more than what’s legally required to run for governor in Illinois or a seat in the U.S. Senate. 

And because the keyword is “valid” it is in a candidate's best interest to submit much more than is required since those signatures can be challenged. 

James makes getting an education in Chicago entertaining. He sets up each name and location of the current neighborhood, helping us understand more than just the typical North Side vs. South Side divide.

James likes to get his proverbial hands dirty. During a visit to two barbershops (both south of downtown) two groups have different outlooks of what black privilege looks like. In another episode, an ex-police officer (white) feels sorry for the new generation, not for the many youths being murdered, no, his sympathy is because the police can’t do what’s needed to protect anyone. He suggests that they are afraid of a personal liability lawsuit, like the one this ex-cop’s friend is facing. Wait, pause, when did the Chicago police force ever protect and serve black and brown people? Here, again, another example of “his-story” parading as history.  

The truth is always (always) more compelling than fiction and in revealing conversations that make this documentary series, you will cheer at James’ typical fly-on-the-wall style of shooting. There is a lot of meat in this doc series and two outspoken tavern owners are the backbone of the documentary using the encroaching Lincoln Yards project, a $6 billion real-estate development, that threatens to commercialize (cannibalize) neighborhood culture and erase local businesses.

Jason Van Dyke’s trial is a major event. Laquan McDonald was shot 16-times because Van Dyke claimed the 17-year-old African-American lunged at him with a knife. A knife vs a gun and 16 bullets. But when dashcam footage is released, showing McDonald was unarmed and walking away from police. Again, I lean into the word “his-story”.  

James asks hard questions to citizens, some engaged, and some oblivious. 
The ensuing controversy led to Van Dyke being charged with first-degree murder, the firing of police superintendent Gary McCarthy (who later ran for mayor), and incumbent mayor Rahm Emmanuel choosing not to seek reelection in 2019.

Residents closer to where McDonald was murdered, all people of color, have their own opinion about what really happened. Now, check this, many white residents (in the northern part of the city) either don’t know anything about it or don’t feel comfortable giving an opinion. 

Check this, and it’s the Trump administration that poured this poison into the common well. One woman says she can’t trust the news, to tell the truth, and she doesn’t have the time to find the truth on her own. 

If that’s not a looking at the average American heading into the 2020 election, I don’t know what else to offer.  

 “City So Real” is a serious doc-series and it takes its responsibility to be accurate and fair, seriously. It’s a must-see and a do not miss. 
“City So Real” is a four-part documentary from Participant Media and Kartemquin Films is currently seeking distribution. On HULU October 30, 2020.


Category: Arts & Culture