Park City, Ut. | Steve James loves Chicago. The city helped to ensure his place in the pantheon of great documentarians thanks to “Hoop Dreams,” widely considered one of the greatest non-fiction films ever made. But in the twenty-five years since that documentary about inner-city high school basketball, the Windy City has continued to give James opportunities to tell its stories. There was “America to Me,” a look at some of the city’s schools, and “Life Itself,” loosely based on late Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert’s book of the same name. (Ebert, a champion of “Hoop Dreams,” specifically asked James to make the documentary.)
At Sundance James is premiering the first two episodes of his four-part series “City So Real,” about the 2019 mayoral election ultimately won by Lori Lightfoot. As the series begins, embattled Mayor Rahm Emanuel (a one-time adviser to President Barack Obama, also a Chicago native) announces he won’t seek another term as mayor. James and his cameras follow Lightfoot and her fellow contenders throughout the campaign, taking a fly-on-the-wall approach that often catches the messiness of grass-roots democracy.
“Frankly, given the number of candidates, I wasn’t looking for that ‘insider access’ you typically see in a political film, where someone is literally following one” candidate, James told me via phone prior to his flight to Salt Lake City. “First of all, it would have been impossible to do. Secondly, that’s not the kind of film I was trying to make. We were trying to make a film that is revealing of who these [candidates] are and the process.”
James said that while some of the candidates actively welcomed he and his team, some of the early frontrunners were more anxious about having cameras around.
“The ones who thought they could actually win…were resistant. They didn’t see an upside in allowing us in because we weren’t going to help them get elected,” James said with a laugh. “It wasn’t going to come out before the election, so what if they do something embarrassing and we’re there.”
Indeed James’s camera does capture those rather awkward moments, including one where a candidate, asked for a policy position, fumbles and asks a staffer to bring over note cards. It’s the parts of democracy we rarely see—and maybe don’t want to.
“It’s not an insider’s view of how to get elected. We were taking a bigger view of this whole process of how democracy plays out, or doesn’t play out,” James said.
Even knowing, as we do, that Lightfoot—who is both black and a lesbian—will ultimately prevail, the draw of “City So Real” is that it puts the viewer at election ground level in one of America’s largest cities. The first episode informs us that the city has seen its black population dwindle—often to other cities like Atlanta in search of opportunity—and “Episode 1” focuses quite dramatically on the trial of white police officer Jason Van Dyke, convicted for emptying his entire magazine into Laquan McDonald, who was black. While initially cleared of wrongdoing—Van Dyke claimed he was being threatened—dashcam video showed McDonald was in fact walking away from Van Dyke and his fellow officers when he was killed.
“Issues of race, violence, of police relationships within minority communities…are national in scope, but they’re particularly pointed here in Chicago,” said James, who calls his town the “quintessential American city” of the Midwest. “It is a very divided city in so many ways [but] this is a big city with people who are passionate about this city.
“There’s much to be excited about Chicago because of the passion of the people, and protests and activation [are] deeply ingrained. But, at the same time, the city has so many problems and so much division and is so segregated in so many ways.”
While it cannot be denied that Chicago has a problem with violence (consistently ranking at or near the top of America’s most lethal cities), the issue of race relations in the country’s third-most-populous are often stoked by President Trump, who has continued to berate the city, both on Twitter and at his rallies, as a “disaster” and lost cause.
While James acknowledges the ongoing problem of violence, he believes that the president’s denunciations of Chicago have less to do with crime and far more to do with race.
“He’s really talking about black people mainly, and saying ‘this is a city that’s out of control’,” James said. “It’s politically coded language to his base. And I think that’s reprehensible and abhorrent.”
But it’s understandable given that Trump lost Illinois—which is both solidly Democratic and the home state of Hillary Clinton—in 2016, and is almost certain to lose there again to his eventual opponent in November.
“It’s easy for him to pick on a place like Chicago because he has nothing to lose,” James said.
James has found that people outside Chicago aren’t extremely familiar with last year’s mayoral race as those within its borders, which means that viewers of “City So Real” can be swept along with the campaign drama as it unfolds. He called then-candidate Lightfoot authentic and “unguarded”—but still tough—which allowed both his camera and Chicagoans to get to know their eventual next mayor all the more.
“Lori Lightfoot came from nowhere [and] she emerges big in Episodes 3 and 4,” James said of the latter installments. “One of the things you’ll see in Episode 4 is that literally a month out from election, she’s at 2.8 percent in one of the polls. A month out! When she comes through in that last month in a big-time way, we really show that.”
Documentaries have a find of finding their narrative in the editing room, but there was no way James could have foreseen the death of his subject, Roger Ebert, when he was filming “Life Itself.” Indeed, Ebert kept the severity of his illness even from his wife Chaz as well as from James.
“His health wasn’t great, but there was no expectation that he wasn’t going to be around to see it through to the end,” said James. “And obviously that had a big impact on how we made the film [and] led to all kinds of creative decisions about how I was going to tell the story, including that he passes away in the movie.
“When I was editing the film, I kept thinking about Roger. ‘What would he want me to do here?’” the filmmaker said. “He didn’t want a hagiography. And there were many times when I was cutting a sequence where he doesn’t look so good, [but] I thought, ‘This is the right thing to do, and this is what Roger would have wanted it to be. He wouldn’t have wanted me to sand off the rough edges because that’s not the kind of films he loved and that’s not the kind of films he would have expected me to make.”
It’s been a quarter-century since James’s “Hoop Dreams” took the film world by storm. The documentary was nominated only for best film editing (it lost) and Ebert was vociferous that the film should have been nominated for best documentary, if not best picture. James said that the film, which he worked on over the course of several years in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, not only gave him a career but also made it easier to fund his subsequent projects.
“There’s way more filmmakers out there competing for resources, but there’s also way more sources for funding and platforms,” said James. “And I’m fortunate because I’ve been around for a while and I have a track record and people are willing to give me money to make things.
“I have raised money every conceivable way there is to raise money,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a method out there I have not done.”
Eric Althoff is in Park City, Ut., this week covering the Sundance Festival (@singerwriterEFA)