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.

Though James knew loosely what he wanted to capture, and has always been happy to “remain open and let the story takes you where it takes you,” he was more willing to let chance dictate his days for “City So Real” than he might’ve been on other shoots. Rather than trying to brush off people who approached their cameras for airtime, James and his crew invited them to share their thoughts on the issues of the day, which led to some of the series’ most impactful moments. “Once we were to able to fully embrace that [approach], it became incredibly liberating for me as a filmmaker and for my collaborators. In some ways, it was the most fun I’ve ever had making a film, even when we were filming some things that weren’t necessarily fun.”

A big motivation for James to make the series was to provide a more complex and fair look at Chicago than many outside the city are used to, given how much it’s become a political lightning rod in recent years. “Chicago is a unique city…and a city where its citizens are quite passionate, but don’t necessarily see eye to eye. We’ve been in the crosshairs nationally as ‘Murder Capital, USA’

— and there’s a reason for that, we have a serious violence problem in the city, but it’s also not the whole story, by any stretch, of what the city is.”

For people both in the city and outside of it, James continues, he felt it was important to make “a much fuller portrait of what this place is and what makes people want to love the city while at the same time, they might be wanting to wring its neck…because that’s kind of how I feel about the city. So my hope is that the overall portrait is complicated enough, and nuanced enough, that you feel like you’re seeing an unvarnished look at the people and what this city is.”

In that respect, James acknowledges, his work of chronicling his beloved Chicago may never fully be done. When asked if he would be willing to dive back in for another chapter of “City So Real,” James doesn’t hesitate to say that he’d “totally be down.”

“This city is utterly fascinating. I’ve been here a long time, and you can make a film about it at any point in time that I’ve lived here. There’s always something going on that’s fascinating and has something to say about America, beyond the city limits of Chicago.”

“City So Real” is currently available to stream on Hulu, Variety’s “Doc Dreams” is presented by National Geographic.