With National Geographic’s City So Real, filmmaker Steve James deftly highlights the voices of a variety of Chicagoans with the vast array of candidates in the 2019 Chicago mayoral race.

The series has been nominated for two Emmy awards this year for Outstanding Documentary series, and Outstanding Cinematography for a Non-Fiction Program, which he shares with his son Jackson James. “We are so thrilled to receive these nominations for City So Real from the Television Academy,” says James. “I want to give a special shout out to my son, Jackson, with whom I proudly share nomination for cinematography. I know talent when I see it!” 

The two-time Oscar nominated documentarian has spent three decades telling the stories of his adopted hometown. In 1994’s Hoop Dreams, James chronicled the complexity of life as two talented young players fantasized about their potential position in the NBA draft.

City So Real is told in five chapters, with the fifth episode captured amidst the global Covid-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matters protests. The docu-series remains broad in scope and impartial of politics, giving James the platform to highlight a multitude of voices in Chicago and provide a greater commentary on life in the United States.

On highlighting the failings of candidates, James found several moments were ignored by the mainstream media. “The regular media aren’t showing her (Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle)  struggling to read notes off her page… they don’t want her to feel like they have mistreated her.” James shares. “Whereas we don’t have those concerns. So we treated those events, not as information gathering where you just look for a quote for the story, but as full-on scenes and documented them in that way.” 

James spoke with Awards Focus about gaining access to the mayoral candidates, how his team managed to motivate insightful conversations from everyday people, and the significance of award recognition in exposing audiences to City So Real.

Awards Focus: You’ve had great success as a documentarian. What appeals to you about telling these human stories?

Steve James: I’m just fascinated by people and their stories that intersect with larger forces and issues at work in our country, and these are certainly very close to home here in Chicago. I fell in love with that kind of filmmaking as a result of Hoop Dreams, and have continued to pursue that.

AF: Can you talk a bit about your inspiration for documenting the 2019 mayoral race in Chicago, and how the process of filming started?

James: I started out with this idea that I’m going to make a stand alone film, and I’m lucky now that docs-series are all the thing because I tend to make long films anyway. I’ve wanted to do a portrait of Chicago for years and have been here now for over three decades. It truly is my home. It dawned on me some years ago that it would be great to do a portrait of the city and its people.

When I saw that the mayoral election was coming around and it promised to be one of the most wide open, maybe ever, in Chicago, that, coupled with the fact that I knew the Laquan Macdonald trial was going to happen smack in the middle of it, it just seemed like this was the time to do the film.

We realized that if we didn’t make it a docs-series, then a lot of the portraiture of people that is an important part of the series might fall away. It would become more narrowly a film about an election and trial, and less opportunity to serendipitously go to all these different corners of the city and meet people in their lives.

AF: Do you think people coming late to City So Real will have a different experience if they know the outcome already?

James: People have told me that, whether they were Chicagoans who really knew it, or people who don’t live here, part of their fascination was how did Lori Lightfoot do it. She truly did come from nowhere and she was considered a very minor candidate for a significant portion of the campaigning. It’s interesting because we were interested in her from the get-go. She was one of the first people I reached out to and it just took a while to get her. In part, the reason she emerges in our series is because we had trouble getting access to her early on. So it feels organic and people have told me they enjoy watching it unfold, even when you know the outcome.

Back in school, I read Bertolt Brecht and his thinking on structuring a story is that when you know the outcome in a story, it allows you as the viewer to focus on how things happen instead of what’s going to happen next. I do think there’s some value in that it allows you to focus on the way politics is run in Chicago, in both its virtues and its lack of branches.

A police officer during a protest in Steve James' CITY SO REAL.
A police officer during a protest in Steve James’ CITY SO REAL. (Photo Credit: Chicago Story, LLC)

AF: How were you able to gain such access to the candidates?

James: At one point there were 21 candidates vying to become mayor. 14 of them made the ballot through the petition process that we document. There were always too many candidates to really do each justice, and we decided early on that we wanted to reflect the broad array of candidates who were trying to become mayor, but we couldn’t follow them all. So we had to make some choices and sometimes choices were made for some of the front runners who didn’t want to give us access because we weren’t going to get them elected. The film was obviously going to come out after the election.

I think, if anything, they had fear that if they allowed us access and they became mayor, we would have compromising footage that would hurt them more than anything. So we would just show up at debates and press conferences, and we still got them. The subjects who gave us access were the ones that we were most interested in, like Amara Enyia who was very much this young, dynamic candidate who has a lot of youth support, or Lori Lightfoot, a black gay woman, who’d never held elective office and wanted to be mayor of Chicago. Or Willie Wilson who had a very important and significant reputation, particularly in the black community of Chicago because of his success and generosity in terms of what he would do with his money.

There were just certain candidates that stood out at us as being representative of the vast array of people that wanted to be mayor, and either had a grudge or an issue that they were really focussed on, and that would be compelling.

AF: At one point, you capture Toni Preckwinkle calling for her notes as she’s being interviewed. Did your perceptions of the candidates change the more you got to see them in the race?

James: Absolutely. Toni was someone we tried to get access to because we were fascinated by her, but to no avail. She was also a front runner, and prohibitive favorite to win, so we showed up at events and debates and got her.

One of the things that really stood out to me as we did that, without the internal access we desired, was that she was not a good campaigner. She’s awkward socially and her campaign was kind of undermined in part by what happened with Ed Burke, the Southside Alderman who was indicted. There were a lot of problems with her campaign.

I have nothing but respect for the folks that do these public events and press conferences day in and day out because it is a grind and a challenge. But when we show up in an event like when she was getting endorsed in Logan Square, the regular media aren’t showing her struggling to read notes off her page and not answering the question. They don’t want her to feel like they have mistreated her.

Whereas we don’t have those concerns. So we treated those events, not as information gathering where you just look for a quote for the story, but as full on scenes and documented them in that way. I think we present the candidates in a truer light of who they are as a people than what you normally get when you just watch the news and they do a story about endorsement.

AF: I really loved how you were able to capture interviews with these people in the process of living their lives, and that you had the patience and openness to hear what anyone had to say. What considerations went into ensuring people of all walks of life had their voices heard?

James: I’m glad you perceived it that way. That was definitely a strong intent. We didn’t want to do formal sit-down interviews. We wanted to capture people on the fly and talk to them in the world, or at the moment, and hear from them, whether they were candidates or everyday people. The other thing was we wanted to have a multitude of perspectives and voices represented, and neighborhoods.

There’s that really intense conversation at the black barbershop, for example, on the South Side, about privilege and how it relates to black people. I was there for that scene but I didn’t shoot it. We had a terrific team in place with Kevin Shaw and Baili Martin who did sound. All of them are African American, and I think part of why that conversation unfolded so candidly was because there was a perception that the people there documenting it could relate and understand them. They wouldn’t dare have that kind of level of conversation with a TV crew.

That black barbershop inspired us to want to go find a white barbershop and see what white guys talk about. So we went to Bridgeport and went to one that’s an institution there. We didn’t know many of the clientele were ex-cops, and we discovered it in the process of filming, which you discover when you watch that scene. I shot that with Zak Piper, my producing partner, who’s white. If we had taken a black crew member into that environment, I doubt we would have gotten the kind of candor that you hear in that scene.

So we try these things in terms of what’s going to give people the most level of comfort to express themselves, honestly, but at the same time, my whole approach to it is not to come in with judgement or expectations or any kind of agenda, and to do my best to be a vessel for them to express themselves.

Lori Lightfoot delivers her victory speech with her family in the background after winning the Chicago Mayor's race in 2019 in Steve James' CITY SO REAL.
Lori Lightfoot delivers her victory speech with her family in the background after winning the Chicago Mayor’s race in 2019
in Steve James’ CITY SO REAL. (Photo Credit: Chicago Story Film, LLC)

AF: In Episode five, there was a crowd of protestors trying to gain entry onto Lori Lightfoot’s Street. The people wanted to be heard, but Lightfoot maintained that her home should always feel safe for her family. Did you ever feel you were intruding on someone’s safety or personal space during filming?

James: No, I don’t think so. That scene is really interesting because I feel like there are two worthy and compelling positions to take. One is that you understand what Lori’s saying because she’s mayor and she plays this public role that is intense, and virtually 24/7. So you understand that when she goes home she would love to feel like she can get away from all that. On the other hand, the protesters, and you hear it from Miracle Boyd, who is very young and outspoken, and is there to be heard.

It’s interesting to deal with Lori and episode five because in the first four episodes she was becoming mayor out of nowhere. She had tremendous support. Ultimately, she won in a landslide runoff and I think it’s an incredibly positive portrait of her as a candidate because it just worked out. When you get to episode five you see some divisions developing between progressives with her over issues of accountability and defunding the police. I think some of that stress and strain that she didn’t anticipate, because it’s a tough job in any city, but especially Chicago.

AF: Finally, with Emmy voting starting just around the corner, what would awards recognition for City So Real mean to you?

James: I was very pleased with how critics championed the series. Nat Geo was the perfect partner in terms of getting it out there for people to see it, whether it be on that or on Hulu. But I feel like there’s just so many people that probably missed it and didn’t see it. It’s a series that has so much to say about America in this moment, and not just Chicago.

Who doesn’t like hardware on their shelf, right? I’m as guilty as anyone of enjoying it but more than anything, it’s about acknowledging that this was a significant piece of work that has something significant to say to us Americans. Emmy nominations and the like really help to get the word out there to people who haven’t watched it. That, more than anything, would be what I would want from the Emmy’s.

About The Author

Matthew Koss
Partner, Deputy Awards Editor

Matthew Koss is the Deputy Awards Editor at Awards Focus and a Senior Film and TV coverage Partner. His writing has been featured in Voyage LA and ScreenRant.

Since joining Awards Focus in 2020, Matthew has interviewed A-list talent, including Academy Award nominee Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emmy winner Alex Borstein, and Lovecraft Country’s Jonathan Majors, across film and TV. He also appears on red carpets for major studios and film festivals, including Hulu’s The Bear.

After moving from Melbourne, Australia, to Los Angeles in 2014, Matthew has worked in various areas of the entertainment industry, including talent and literary representation, film/tv development as a Creative Executive, and at film festivals as a Regional Manager. Matthew is also a screenwriting consultant, most recently partnering with Roadmap Writers, where he conducted private, multi-week mentorship consultations, roundtables, and monthly coaching programs.

Matthew is also a producer, recently appearing at the Los Angeles Shorts International Film Festival with his film Chimera, directed by Justin Hughes.

He continues to work with entertainment companies such as Warner Bros. Discovery, Zero Gravity Management, Sundance Institute, and MGMT Entertainment.

You can find more of his reviews, essays, and travel stories on his website, Wandering Screen.

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