City So Real
Director: Steve James
Hanging in Neal Sáles-Griffin’s Chicago apartment is what looks like a misshapen, monotone puzzle—a mishmash of crazy-shaped pieces that somehow form a unified whole. It’s Chicago, he tells us, and each piece represents a community, as individual as its outline.
“Chicago is a city of neighborhoods,” Sáles-Griffin says.
Sáles-Griffin wants to be Mayor of Chicago—one of a staggering 21 politicians vying for the job in 2019 and a break-out voice in National Geographic’s five-episode documentary City So Real. The doc, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams), chronicles this topsy-turvy, bitterly waged contest from the opening bell to a year after, as the new mayor struggles with the coronavirus and racial unrest.
If James was looking for politics at its basest, brashest and outright weirdest, He came to the right place.
Chicago has long been a great stage for riveting political theater, of course. The city’s famous for its bare-knuckle campaigns and brushes with political corruption. But boil off the Windy City’s political bluster, and City So Real finds that politics really all comes down to those neighborhoods: The mostly white enclaves on the North Side; the predominantly African-American communities to the south; the Latino and Hispanic neighborhoods out West.
While Sáles-Griffin’s map was mostly white, the real landscape of Chicago is a multi-hued, multi-ethnic, multi-issued stew. It’s not so much a puzzle as it is a quilt, full of color and texture and localized character.
With more than five-and-a-half hours to play with, City So Real has the space to explore that quilt with breadth and depth, talking not just with politicians, but the folks who’ll be voting for them. James’ crew meets a dog walker who works for the residents of Chicago’s wealthy Gold Coast. (When asked how well he knows the dogs’ owners, he says “I know their dogs well. The less I talk with [the owners], the better, I guess.”) They spend an afternoon in a South Side barbershop exploding with political conversation. They loiter in bars across the city for a Chicago Bears-Philadelphia Eagles playoff game—one of the few events that seems to draw the whole city together.
And, of course, they—and we—meet a dizzying array of mayoral candidates: political vets such as progressive stalwart Toni Preckwinkle and political fixture Bill Daley, whose father and brother were both Chicago mayors for a total of 43 years; young outsiders such as Sáles-Griffin and Amara Enyia, whose parents were raised in Nigeria and who snagged an endorsement from Chance the Rapper; wildcards such as former police superintendent Larry McCarthy and Lori Lightfoot, vying to become the first LGBTQ mayor in Chicago history. We learn about the city’s biggest issues (racial strife, corruption and the proposed $6 billion Lincoln Yards redevelopment program, for starters). We delve into what motivates these candidates and see how each of them tries to navigate Chicago’s Byzantine political system.
It’s the system itself that I found the most fascinating part of City So Real. Once candidates file stacks of signatures (a requirement to appear on the ballot), for instance, partisan political operatives pour over them and look for any excuse to disqualify would-be competitors—particularly competitors who share a demographic base with a given candidate. “Irish are going to look at (and try to disqualify) the Irish,” one Chicago political vet says. “The women are going to look at women.” Sometimes, objections to signatures are so partisan that Sáles-Griffin’s own mother’s signature was objected to—even though she was right on hand to declare its validity.
Spoiler Alert: Lightfoot wins the election, and James returns to Chicago a year later, to see how she and the city have faired in a time of tremendous upheaval. The coronavirus emptied the streets. The George Floyd murder filled them with riots. Lightfoot jokes that she feels a little like Job. “Whatever horrible thing I’ve done to bring this on, I repent!” she says. But alas, she and we know better. COVID’s going nowhere for a while, and the city’s racial tensions—built up over more than a century—will take more than a new mayor to turn around.
City So Real doesn’t always show Chicago’s—or America’s—political system at its best. But it does offer an engrossing, unvarnished look at the people, issues and mechanisms that make it tick. The documentary will premiere commercial free on National Geographic this Thursday, Oct. 29, and will be available in its entirety on Hulu the day after.
Written by Paul Asay