In Conversation: Steve James on City So Real

Two-time Academy Award-nominated director Steve James has dedicated much of his career to following Chicagoans reckoning with the implications of social forces on their daily lives. His humanist filmmaking has focused on the resolute individuals working to interrupt violence in Chicago communities, the life and legacy of Roger Ebert, and the inner workings of a Chicago area high school struggling to tackle racial equity, among many more projects that have led to him being one of the most acclaimed documentary filmmakers of all time.

For his latest project, City so Real, James and his collaborators at Kartemquin and Participant Media present a mosaic portrait of Chicago and its citizens, captured at a crucial juncture in the city's history: the 2019 mayoral election campaign.

We spoke with James about the project and its impact on his relationship with Chicago today:

Kartemquin: You've talked about how you've wanted to make this film for a few years now. When did you first start to pursue the project in earnest?

Steve James: I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to try to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time for the city. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to try and do the story.
KTQ: How have your previous films informed the making of this film?
SJ: I think having lived in Chicagoland for 35 plus years now and having done a number of films centered here, I've always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. [In previous films] I've always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we're not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I've done have, but I still feel like people's voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.
KTQ: What were the logistics of covering major city-wide events, like election night, in a city as vast as Chicago?
SJ: It wasn't easy. We started back in July [2018], it was actually on the Fourth of July - that was our first shoot. It's like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more.

We just sort of threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor's race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here.

By election day, Zak [Piper, producer] had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double check that, it might have been seven. We had this very organized team effort to kind of hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn't already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the board of elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So yeah, it was kind of a monster.
KTQ: Do you remember where you were on election day? Which candidates you jumped from and where you ended up?
SJ:  I skipped around a lot. So I started the day with Willie [Wilson], showing up at his campaign office to greet some of the workers. Then he went down to MacArthur's restaurant to eat, so we shot that. I saw Amara [Enyia] going by polling places and meeting people with an alderman. I filmed Garry McCarthy when he voted. I filmed Neil Sáles-Griffin when he voted – there was a whole debacle with the voting machine.
Then eventually I went to Paul Vallas'. We went to try to find him but he wasn't at his campaign office, so we hung out there for a while. I shot with Lori Lightfoot when she won. I was there for that. So it was from 7am until Midnight that I was out shooting.
KTQ: What do you want Chicagoans and non-Chicagoans to take away from the film?
SJ: I think there's a lot that Chicagoans can take away from this that they may or may not be familiar with, but I also hope that they will be taken with the vibrancy of the city and the passion. There's so much passion in the people that live here.

In a way it's what I want non-Chicagoans to take away too, to see that Chicago is an endlessly fascinating city that has a lot to say about the country we live in too, in terms of race and segregation and opportunity or lack of opportunity; where someone who wasn't given a chance of winning the election can become the next mayor of Chicago.