Poster for City So Real (all images courtesy Kartemquin)

Steve James’s Hoop Dreams is celebrated for its depiction of Chicago’s inner-city school sports-industrial complex and the Black families embedded in it. But I always felt a degree of separation between James’s white crew and their subjects. There is a stiffness to the interviews that is not entirely conquered over time, and if the families do open up, it is with reservations about the gaze on them. To mitigate this, James has made efforts to diversify his crews with his more recent work. For America To Me, a series examining racial bias in one of Chicago’s most progressive high schools, he commissioned a diverse team of co-directors (Kevin Shaw, Rebecca Parrish, Bing Liu) for the different episodes. Similarly, while he directed all five parts of his latest docuseries, City So Real, he diversified his team behind the camera. The series is a loose portrait of Chicago, structured around its 2019 mayoral election and the trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald.

The mayoral candidates featured the most, like Amara Enyia, Neil Sales Griffin, and eventual victor Lori Lightfoot, are camera-trained, but many other subjects are not. When a young Black girl in Auburn Gresham sees a camera trained on her from afar, she hurries inside. When a young woman at a salon on the South Side tells James about the settlement her family received after police murdered her brother, she streamlines the story in such a way that white audiences might better understand. When a barber and a postman get into an argument, the barber talks performatively toward the lens. The white news media has historically distorted Black experiences. Regardless of James’s sincere intentions and diverse crew, his presence as a white man with a camera in BIPOC communities feels dubious, and influences and limits what he can capture in those spaces.

From City So Real

In contrast, James has an advantage in being able to capture the racism of white subjects unfettered. Retired cops in a barbershop in Bridgeport feel comfortable telling racist jokes in front of him. When the film sits in on a group of supporters of candidate Gary McCarthy (former superintendent of the Chicago Police Department) who are watching a debate, one man makes racist comments every time Enyia talks, while the others bark similar grievances. But when the moderator asks McCarthy whom he would like to see move forward to the runoff election if not himself, he names Enyia, and they immediately change their tone. “She’s smart! She’s really smart!” says one of the women who had previously complained about her.

The final episode picks up events a year after the previous episode. Chicago is in quarantine, and protests persist in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Under Mayor Lightfoot, the police state is thriving. A $95 million police academy is set to be built in the middle of the predominantly Black West Garfield Park community, with vacant schools to be converted into “mini-police academies.” Lightfoot is against reducing the police budget (nearly $1.7 billion this year), and the force has more sworn officers per capita than either New York or Los Angeles.

From City So Real

James calls Chicago the “American City” because it is all the worst and best of the country packed into close proximity. But City So Real does not challenge any of those worst things, sculpting a love letter to the city around some of its ugliest circumstances. It does well to step back while recording, but does not express outrage through the editing either. James cuts to emphasize the contrast between neighborhoods, jumping between the Presidents Lounge, a Black bar on the south side, and the Windsor Tavern, a white bar with a “Police Lives Matter Sign” on the north. He cuts to contrast the bad with the good, often falling back on the wondrous sights of the city: the Christkindl Market and Christmas-decorated downtown, the Chicago River reflected back on a glass high rise, or the eccentric populace. He does this to relieve the audience from the city’s structural inequalities, police brutality, and overall malfeasance. But he does not contradict or resist those evils.

In his lengthy interview with Lightfoot in the final episode, James contrasts her statements with the opposing arguments of police abolitionists. In the comparisons, one can pinpoint contradictions (Lightfoot says no one in high-crime communities are saying to defund the police, then people from those communities do precisely that), but the series remains neutral and lets viewers decide how to feel. But what is left to decide? James might have explored the travails of Chicago with more substance if he had not tried to keep City So Real so safe.

From City So Real

City So Real is now available to stream via Hulu.

Aaron Hunt works in film production and has written for Filmmaker, Sight & Sound, American Cinematographer, MUBI Notebook, and more. He is also the co-founder and senior programmer of DEDZA Films,...