How ‘City So Real’ Director Steve James Found His Chicago Subjects From The Back of an Uber



Creating a full picture of an entire city without losing sight of its many complications, contradictions and singular joys is a tall task that most filmmakers would find impossible. For Steve James, however, it’s been a long time coming.

“The idea occurred to me probably 15 years ago,” James says of “City So Real,” his in-depth docuseries on Chicago. “I’d been in Chicago for about 20 years at that point…and thought it would be great to do a kind of mosaic portrait of the city inspired, by all things, a Chris Marker film I’d seen many, many years earlier called ‘La Joli Mai.’” Over 5 episodes, James — whose previous work includes “Hoop Dreams” and “America to Me” — follows the city’s unusually crowded mayoral race, the trial of the police officer who shot and killed Black teenager Lacquan McDonald, and the ongoing effects of gentrification. They embedded with several mayoral campaigns, including Lori Lightfoot’s eventually successful one, throughout the entire process of getting their names on the ballot all the way through to the race’s bitter end.

Though James originally conceived of “City So Real” as a feature film, he and his team — including his producing partner Zach Piper and son Jackson James — realized mid-filming that they had more than enough material for a series. Once in post-production, James says, “I identified about 100 scenes that we shot of about 200 scenes all together that we should cut as possible and see where we stood — and when we had cut that together, it was about 12 hours long.”

That wasn’t the first time during production that the team decided to go longer than the original plan dictated. “City So Real” was only supposed to be four episodes long — and then the pandemic hit. “I didn’t want [the series] to feel like ancient history,” James explains. They at first worked around Chicago’s shelter in place order with Zoom interviews, but once the protests over George Floyd’s murder started in earnest, they resolved to go back out into the streets to capture the city at a critical turning point. “Chicago is the birthplace of community organizing in America,” James says. “One of the things you see in the first four episodes is that there is a vibrant activist and protest-oriented community here. So when George Floyd hit, it just went on steroids and was a very significant part of the story.” By the time they finished filming, James and his co-editor David E. Simpson had just over six weeks to cut together the 80 minute episode before air.

Variety’s ‘Doc Dreams’ is presented by National Geographic.

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