How Docuseries ‘City So Real’ Paints a Vivid Portrait of Chicago, Democracy and Decency

From "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James, "City So Real" is an achievement in attention to detail and complexity.

A still from City So Real by Steve James, an official selection of the Indie Episodic program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Photographer | photo by Steve James.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.
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On the day of the 2019 Chicago mayoral election, candidate Neal Sáles-Griffin went to a polling place first thing in the morning to cast a vote for himself, a celebratory moment he’d worked towards for months. Instead, the digital machine immediately failed. He had to wait as the harried volunteers rebooted it, called tech support, and assured him that any minute now, surely, he’d be able to successfully vote.

As portrayed in NatGeo’s new docuseries “City So Real,” from lauded “Hoop Dreams” documentarian Steve James, this is a small moment in the grand scheme of things. The series is comprised of just five episodes, but follows the entire Chicago mayoral election from the early days following Rahm Emanuel’s resignation, through the protests over a police officer shooting and killing 17 year-old Laquan McDonald, to Lori Lightfoot’s victory, and to the Black Lives Matter protests and coronavirus pandemic unfolding in the present. It’s a remarkably ambitious project, but one “City So Real” pulls off with impressive ease and a vanishingly small footprint of his own.

There is no voiceover guiding viewers from one event to the next, no overarching “and this is why we’re here” thesis statement about the spread of gentrification. Instead, James and his team strategically embed themselves within several mayoral campaigns — including those of Sáles-Griffin, Lightfoot, and Amara Eniya — and travel throughout the city to capture the kinds of conversations at bars, barber shops and dinner parties in which people firmly, but amiably, disagree. With an impressive eye for detail and clarity, “City So Real” is an indelible portrait of a city too often used as a cudgel in shortsighted political arguments. (In this way, it echoes “America to Me,” James’ fantastic Starz docuseries about a suburban Chicago school struggling to embody its progressive philosophy.)

While the scope of “City So Real” is impressively wide, it’s the small moments like Sáles-Griffin doing his best to vote that make it truly special. As with most every time he and his campaign came up against frustrating bureaucratic obstacles like this, Sáles-Griffin maintains a cool head and a warm composure. He insists that he doesn’t mind waiting, that he ran for mayor in the first place because of access issues like this. He offers his help, has some coffee, cracks some jokes. And when the machine finally gets back up and running, he gives the elderly poll worker a hug and tells her how glad he is that they had this chance to meet. Sáles-Griffin didn’t come close to winning the election, which eventually resulted in Lightfoot becoming Chicago’s first Black woman mayor. But his determined optimism and patient dedication to weeding through City Hall’s constant red tape are inspiring nonetheless.

The same goes, perhaps double these days, for those nameless poll volunteers and City Hall employees Sáles-Griffin and “City So Real” encounters along the way. Granted, Chicago is no stranger to corrupt politicians using the system for ill (a fact acknowledged in “City So Real” when veteran alderman Ed Burke somehow survives a massive fraud investigation). But for the very most part, as “City So Real” illustrates over and over again with matter-of-fact compassion, these workers are committed members of the community, many of them elderly. They’re citizens who get up early to swallow some stale coffee and keep the machines running (or call in for help when they don’t) to help the democratic process in their city run just a little bit smoother. In showing them as they are, instead of the nefarious agents of mass deception that the president would have us believe, “City So Real” ends up performing a quietly radical act of service.

All five episodes of “City So Real” are currently available to stream on Hulu.