In July 1995, a deadly heat wave struck the city of Chicago. When the final death toll was tallied, 739 people had died – most of them poor, elderly and black.
The new documentary “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” from Kartemquin Films and Peabody Award-winning director Judith Helfand revisits that tragedy and makes a compelling case that it was not just the heat but poverty and racism that led to so many deaths.
Helfand decided to make the film after reading Eric Klinenberg’s book “Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago.” Klinenberg’s analysis made clear that most heat-related deaths occurred in the areas of Chicago with the highest rates of poverty and crime.
One reason the death toll was so high was that fear of crime led many elderly residents of poorer black communities, who often lacked air conditioners, to seal their windows – sometimes by simply nailing them shut – to keep intruders out. Similar heat waves in the 1930s were not nearly as deadly because people felt safe enough to sleep in parks or at the lakefront where it was cooler.
As the film unfolds, Helfand – who also narrates the film – looks at how cities and states prepare for disasters today and notes how efforts to prepare for disasters which strike infrequently, indiscriminately and kill relatively few people, such as earthquakes and tornadoes, are often lavishly funded.
By contrast, poor black communities in Chicago suffer thousands of preventable deaths each year but few resources are mobilized to address the underlying causes of those deaths.
“Extreme weather reveals extreme inequity, extreme disparity, extreme racism – and the long term impact of structural racism,” Helfand told the Chicago Tribune last week. “And I think that it’s all too easy, because of segregation and the long term impact of segregation, to not see what you don’t want to see. To not see what it’s not convenient to see.”
“Cooked: Survival by Zip Code” is now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center at the School of the Art Institute through July 25.
Video: Watch the trailer for “Cooked: Survival by Zip Code.”