For more than a year, documentary filmmaker Steve James and his collaborators fanned out across Chicago at a pivotal moment. They covered the historic 2019 race for mayor, debates over large-scale developments and the high-profile court cases of former cop Jason Van Dyke and Ald. Ed Burke.
The result is the new five-part series “City So Real,” which premieres Thursday on NatGeo and Friday on Hulu, and features those high-profile stories interwoven with many of the smaller, neighborhood stories that help paint a portrait of Chicago.
“(The 2019) mayoral election … was so wide open, even before Rahm Emanuel dropped out, and then it became even more wide open,” James said. “And I knew it was going to coincide with the trial with Laquan McDonald, so I thought, well, this is Chicago literally at a crossroads.”
The crew crisscrossed the city following candidates, campaign workers and activists. They also met Chicagoans in bars, restaurants and barbershops, talking with them about how they see their city. After wrapping up shooting in 2019, James decided to return and film a fifth episode this year.
“We ventured out at that point to do what we thought was going to be a postscript, but then George Floyd hit,” James said. “When George Floyd hit we said well, this is a full-on episode, because in order to really get our arms around what the city is going through now we need to devote more time to it. And I’m so glad we were able to do it.”
James said he hopes the series it will help viewers outside Chicago understand that the city is far more vibrant and complex than its violent reputation, “to see that this is an amazing city with a lot of passion, but also reflect on their own cities because I think … what goes on in Chicago really goes on everywhere.”
All five episodes of “City So Real” will air without commercials starting at 6 p.m. Thursday on Nat Geo, and will be available to stream Friday on Hulu.
Watch the trailer below.