Steve James on Documenting Chicago’s 2019 Mayoral Race in City So Real for NatGeo [Exclusive Interview]

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

Steve James
Steve James directed City So Real. A woman talks to a police officer during a protest. (Chicago Story Film, LLC)

As someone who grew up outside of Chicago during my early years, my memories of Chicago were harsh winters, strong winds, and heavy snow. My fondest memories being in Joliet, the city south of Chicago, was living in a melting pot and grew up as a White Sox fan.

As one of the largest cities behind New York and Los Angeles, Chicago has its social and cultural problems. The city unfairly labeled as the “crime capital of the country” with shootings reported on a daily basis. Poverty and unemployment are rampant in neighborhoods as residents felt left behind in the recent economic recovery. Most of all, racial tensions are at an all-time high, especially with a white police officer shooting of a black man in 2018.

After two-term Chicago mayor and former President Barack Obama’s right-hand man Rahm Emanuel decided not to run for reelection, 21 potential mayoral candidates came out of the woodwork to jockey to be the leader of a city in turmoil. Documentarian Steve James took the opportunity to record the process with an in-depth look at the people who wants to save the city they love in City So Real.

RELATED: National Geographic to Air Five-Part Series City So Real On Issues Of Chicago

Here’s the synopsis of the film:

In the five-part documentary series City So Real, Oscar-nominated documentarian Steve James delivers a fascinating and complex portrait of Chicago, America’s third-largest metropolis and his longtime hometown. The series began in the haze of mid-summer 2018, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, embroiled in accusations of a cover-up related to the police shootings 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 Chicago’s uncertain future. The series’ final episode 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 streets as police clash with protesters, bringing rise to a generational moment that promises to change the city forever.

In candid interviews with residents throughout the city, the series captures Chicago’s indomitable spirit as well as its seemingly insurmountable challenges. City So Real is a gritty and loving depiction of a quintessentially American city that is once fiercely unique and a microcosm of the nation—and our world—as a whole.

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LRM Online’s Gig Patta spoke with director Steve James about the documentary. We discussed his ties to the city, the approach, the people he interviewed, and following the mayoral race.

Steve James earned four Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award nominations for 1994’s Hoop Dreams. Also, Hoop Dreams marked his first Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing and an Independent Spirit Award win. His second Oscar nod came with 2016’s Abacus: Small Enough to Jail as Best Documentary Feature. His other notable credits included Stevie, The Interrupters, and Robert Ebert biography Life Itself. All of these documentaries earned recognition in various capacities.

City So Real is a five-part commercial-free event premiering tomorrow night, October 29, on the National Geographic Channel at 7/6c. The series will be available the next day on Hulu.

Watch the exclusive interview below with director Steve James. Let us know what you think.

Source: LRM Online Exclusive, National Geographic

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Gig Patta

Gig Patta is a journalist and interviewer for LRM and Latino-Review since 2009. He was a writer for other entertainment sites in the past with Collider and IESB.net. He originally came from the world of print journalism with several years as a reporter with the San Diego Business Journal and California Review. He earned his MBA from the Keller Graduate School of Management and BA in Economics from UC San Diego. Follow him on Instagram @gigpatta or Facebook @officialgigpatta.

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