Awards Daily talks to two-time Academy Award-nominated director Steve James about his important five-part National Geographic series City So Real, which follows the events leading up to the 2019 Chicago mayoral election.
Smithsonian Channel’s Aerial America TV series takes a bird’s eye view of the United States, soaring over states from sea to shining sea one episode at a time.
It’s hard not to think of this series as the complete opposite of National Geographic’s City So Real, where director Steve James drops audiences into the action, in this case the 2019 Chicago election for mayor. In this case, you’re not getting an overhead view of the mayoral race—you’re everywhere and anywhere you need to be in the Windy City. In some episodes, James is capturing multiple neighborhoods and moments in the same day.
“We managed to fool you into thinking we were [everywhere and anywhere in Chicago],” says James. “At first it seemed overwhelming to us, trying to capture the whole city in a way during this important election and trial [Jason Van Dyke]. We just had to make our peace with the fact that this was going to be a portrait of Chicago, not the portrait. We let serendipity take us where it took us. We tried to preserve that quality in the way we put the series together. You’re never quite sure where you might go next, because we were never quite sure where we would go next.”
Clearly something so expansive had a large crew for it, right? Nope. Other than Election Day, which included additional shooters, most of the time the team working on this project was James, his son Jackson James, and Zak Piper who did the sound work. The initial shooting was for 9 to 10 months, which allowed him and his son to completely immerse themselves in the story. In the end, they ended up capturing more than 400 hours of film.
“I have no idea how many actual days we went out, but it was a lot,” says James with a laugh.
From Virtual Obscurity to Mayor of Chicago
James manages to keep the 2021 docuseries suspenseful, even though a quick Google search for non-Chicagoans would reveal that Lori Lightfoot would go on to best 14 candidates and become mayor in the 2019 run-off election.
At the time, pundits had put Toni Preckwinkle, Bill Daley, and Susana Mendoza as the frontrunners, and yet James was always drawn to Lightfoot.
“I was fascinated by the fact that she was not a politician, she’d never run for political office. I thought this would be a very interesting person to follow, not thinking at all that she had any real chance of becoming the next mayor of Chicago. I think we were very fortunate that we were very persistent [in getting access to film her]; it was great that we were there to see her rise from virtual obscurity to Mayor of Chicago.”
‘You’re Never Quite Sure Where You Go Next’
If chronicling all of the candidates running for mayor of Chicago in 2019 wasn’t daunting enough, City So Real also follows everyday Chicagoans on the street, in barber shops, or outside of Cubs games.
Sometimes, James didn’t even know who or what he was going to capture until he started talking to these people, as in the case of Tracy the Uber driver, who has a heartbreaking moment in the series.
“When we got in the car with Tracy, she was just giving us a ride. She saw the cameras, and we explained what we were doing, and she started talking about how much she loves Amara Enyia, one of the mayoral candidates, and I was just like, ‘Whoah! Do you mind if I get in the front seat and film you talking about this?’ She was so vivacious and interesting.”
Wearing a Care Bears onesie (for spreading kindness), she starts telling a story about what had happened to hear earlier that day, when a man yelled racist things at her as she waited to pick up a passenger. This revelation causes her to tear up talking about it.
“We had no idea Tracy would be a part of the film. That was the beauty and the challenge of this series, was to be true to that.”
COVID and George Floyd
City So Real premiered at Sundance in 2020—right before COVID shut everything down and before he secured a distributor for his timely film. With so much changing following COVID, James worried that everything they had made was now ancient history, given everything the world was going through. So he decided they needed to do a follow-up episode, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, that would bring the present dilemma to the city.
“My aspirations at that point were fairly modest. But then when George Floyd hit, we just decided we have to be out in the streets. We have to capture this. This is now a much bigger story, even more than the pandemic, which was pretty big. So we hit the streets.”
Not only does Episode 5 bring current issues to light, but it also shows audiences how Lori Lightfoot has handled her role as mayor amidst a global pandemic and demonstrations around the death of George Floyd. In many ways, James inadvertently made a time capsule of life in Chicago before and after COVID, even following the same people to see how the pandemic affected their lives.
“One of the things that was exciting about when we committed to Episode 5 was that we thought it would be great to find some of the people that you got to know through the first four episodes, be it candidates or Tracy the driver or Rev the barber—we made a point of finding out where their lives had gone in the wake of all of this. My hope was that you as a viewer would feel more bound to them so that you have some understanding of what the lives were like before the pandemic and now what they’re dealing with post-pandemic.”
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.