Tuesday, December 1, 2020

City So Real - made for TV


Susan Mendoza (left to right), Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle, and Paul Vallas

Neal Sáles-Griffin (right) speaking to his father

Dr. Amara Enyia

Toni Preckwinkle

Willie Wilson

Director Steve James








CITY SO REAL – made for TV             B                                                                                   USA  (330 mi)  2020  d:  Steve James

Chicago is a city comprised of 50 political wards, each with their own elected alderman who serves on the city council voting on city business conducted by the mayor, yet it’s also a city of 77 different neighborhoods that offer a uniquely different community impact, showing ethnic diversity through historical migration patterns, as neighborhoods shift and change over time due to wholesale urban renewal projects and gentrification, with some dominating the available resources, such as the downtown Loop area and the more affluent northsides, while the segregated black south and westside neighborhoods are routinely overlooked and underfunded, showing few signs of economic development or commercial growth.   To quote David K. Fremon’s book Chicago Politics Ward by Ward:

We have neighborhoods—hundreds of smaller foci of stores and businesses, which together make up the metropolis.  They provide a continuous social and economic flow.  Some are thriving, some are suffering, some once suffering are now thriving and others are declining after having seen better days.  But all have something to offer.  Even North Lawndale, subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series describing urban decay, shows signs of hope. 

Most of all, there are homes—condominiums and mansions, Queene Anne and graystone and ballroom-frame homes, suburban-style homes and bungalows.  Entire wards consist of little but street after street of residences, which makes for nice living if not necessarily interesting driving.    

Finally, Chicago abounds in little-known and sometimes hidden treasures.  It may be a one-of-a kind business, unique entertainment, or even an imaginatively painted garage.  These small, often quirky attractions may not make the newspapers but nonetheless prove that the creative spirit is alive in the Windy City.  Granted, one’s knowledge of Chicago politics is not enhanced by the awareness of the existence of a huge cigar-store Indian at 63rd and Kedzie—but maybe one’s appreciation of the city’s wondrous diversity is. 

A sprawling 5 and ½ hour essay on the city that leaves intact the good with the bad, where moments of poignant beauty may evolve into raw, unadulterated ugliness, providing a broad-shouldered glimpse of America’s third largest city, initially shot as a four-part series, starting with the police and political cover-up of the 2014 shooting of LaQuan McDonald, a 17-year old black teenager shot 16 times by white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, completely emptying his chamber, where an investigation report released 5-years later accused Van Dyke and 10 other officers of making false statements to exaggerate the threat posed by McDonald, claiming he lunged at the officer with a knife.  Four others allegedly failed to ensure their video or audio recording systems were working, while a former lieutenant who led the shooting investigation allegedly destroyed handwritten notes from witness interviews, and the surveillance video obtained by police from a nearby Burger King was intentionally erased.  Within 6-months of the incident, a $5 million dollar settlement was reached with the victim’s family.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel delayed releasing the accompanying police dash-cam video, becoming available 13-months later only through repeated Freedom of Information requests by the media and under a judge’s order, which revealed an entirely different scenario, as the victim, while carrying a knife, never raised it in a threatening manner as described by the police, and was actually walking away, but was instead shot down on the street in a brutal display of excessive force.  Officer Van Dyke remained employed as a police officer and was not charged until that video release, finally charged more than a year later with first degree murder, but sentenced to just 81 months, a relatively light sentence, but the first sentencing for an on-duty Chicago police killing of a citizen in almost thirty-five years.  The public outcry in response to the revelations led to the firing of the Police Chief Garry McCarthy, but also a bombshell announcement that in the fallout of the massive cover-up, Mayor Emanuel would not be running for re-election.  The film begins when as many as 21 different candidates announce their mayoral candidacy (14 making the final ballot), setting up an unprecedented political showdown.  The four-part series ended with the election of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who served for three years as president of the Chicago Police Board, an independent civilian body that decides disciplinary cases involving Chicago police officers (https://twitter.com/LoriLightfoot/status/1103027152264540161/photo/1), with the mayor appointing her chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force which filed a report critical of current police practices, in particular the police union’s “code of silence,” initially viewed as an also-ran in a crowded field, who rose from single-digit polling, registering only 2.8% with just a month to go, making up some serious last-minute ground, but an additional fifth part was added when the Covid pandemic hit and the Black Lives Matter protests around the country were sparked by another brutal police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, with activists describing these heinous police murders as new black lynchings.  While ostensibly about the city of Chicago, this added fifth section in particular focuses on Mayor Lori Lightfoot, with the film crew gaining surprising behind-the-scenes access, viewed sympathetically, becoming a central focus of the film, where this could easily be entitled The Lori Lightfoot Movie, offering her perspective on a number of issues, many of them unpopular, but seems guided by her own moral convictions, which is certainly an improvement upon the cynical political maneuvers of the past.  As a political novice, however, the question remains whether she really pulls the levers of power in a city that has always conducted business through backroom deals made by an old-boys club network of exclusive insiders.

Steve James has immersed himself in different subjects before, from the high school basketball exposé of Hoop Dreams (1994) to the biographical eulogy of legendary film critic Robert Ebert in Life Itself (2014).  Adapting a title from Nelson Algren whose biography is entitled Never a Lovely So Real, further revised by Chicago author Alex Kotlowitz in his 2004 book, Never a City So Real, Never a City So Real - Northwestern Now, which introduced various Chicago personalities.  James has worked with Kotlowitz before as the writer and co-producer of a small gem of a film, 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #3 The Interrupters, which was based on his own New York Times exposé examining the root causes of Chicago gang violence, actually offering a surprising solution through an organization founded and run by a bunch of former gang members headed by Tio Hardiman (About Tio Hardiman – Violence Interrupters), who interceded before violence escalates, an effective means to reduce gang violence until program funding ceased when Hardiman was arrested on domestic battery charges in 2013, with escalating gang violence going through the roof since then, where a staggering amount of unending violence is largely confined to 10% of the city.  Using Chris Marker’s extended documentary Le Joli Mai (1963) as a model, one of the first examples of cinéma vérité to come out of France, James alters the style significantly by emphasizing the power of the television screen, which has to be shown at least 50 times in the film, as we see people gathered around a television screen in neighborhood barber shops, hair salons, bars and restaurants, and even in people’s homes.  Additional footage highlights LaQuan McDonald street protests occurring in different sections of the city, with indifferent northsiders around Wrigley Field describing them as a nuisance, yet some of the most vociferous demonstrations occur at City Hall just outside the city council chambers aimed at derailing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed $98 million dollar project to build a new police and fire training academy on the barren grounds of Chicago’s westside, basically shoved down their throats at the last minute, obviously with insufficient community input, as it was never planned to spur economic development, emphasizing that in Chicago the power lies with the developers and the investors, chosen, of course, by the mayor, bypassing an extremely demonstrative community voice advocating rejection, as anyone willing to put that amount of money on the table will receive support from the traditional Chicago power brokers, much as they have done in mayors and bygones past, with the proposal passing easily.  Similarly, among the last acts of Mayor Emanuel was to advance one of his pet projects, a $6 billion dollar Lincoln Yards development project (Lincoln Yards (development)), 50 acres of prime real estate between the Lincoln Park and Bucktown communities consisting of several 70-story high-rises that will include apartments, condos, office, retail, and entertainment, including a possible site for an Amazon headquarters (quickly rejected), while also requiring ugly giant-sized parking lots.  The question asked is whether the city wants to be a glossy international tourist destination, complete with eye-popping architecture, or a city of neighborhoods, with bars and taverns defining the coziness of a neighborhood feel.  Again, it’s the kind of deal with so much money on the line that it’s literally catnip for a city like Chicago, as they simply can’t say no to those astronomical numbers, despite their history of brokering bad deals, none more catastrophic than the infamous parking meter deal that was jammed through city council just before Christmas in 2008, leaving Chicago Screwed for 75 years - Daily Kos.   

Each segment is introduced by a giant city neighborhood map, identifying which neighborhood is being featured and where in the city it is located.  Early on, many of the candidates are introduced, offering a casualness and easy-going look behind the scenes, also the boxed formatted television reality view of things, using various news reports to comment upon their campaigns.  In Chicago, mayoral candidates are required to submit a petition with 12,500 valid registered voters’ signatures for their names to appear on the ballot, considerably more than New York, which requires 3,750, or Los Angeles only needing 500.  In order to reduce the field and distinguish one’s candidacy from others, it’s an old Chicago tradition to challenge weaker opponents by questioning the validity of the signatures.  This age-old process can be humiliating and demeaning, but it’s also effective.  Noteworthy was the response of Neal Sáles-Griffin, a young black tech start-up entrepreneur, whose mother was in tears when she learned her signature was deemed invalid.  Once a decision is made, there’s really no way to go back and reaffirm an invalid signature, no matter the evidence, as that’s simply the nature of the process which drags along at a snail’s pace, spending weekends and nights poring over signatures in addition to routine business hours.  Toni Preckwinkle is challenging both Lori Lightfoot and Susan Mendoza, where the frivolousness of the challenge is clearly evident, challenging each empty space or line, making petty references to pages that don’t exist.  Lightwood did not do signature overkill, just provided sufficient numbers, while others try to scare the others out of the waters with big numbers, creating an illusion that’s representative of their support.  Preckwinkle’s strategy backfires, with Lightfoot seizing upon the opportunity to turn her campaign around, generating plenty of publicity by prevailing in the challenge.  Enter Willie Wilson, a black business millionaire who likes to throw his money around as a means to persuade potential voters, but doesn’t call it buying votes, though clearly that’s what it is.  While there are suggestions that Wilson is actually a Republican, as he’s an ardent Trump supporter, he consistently receives black community support, yet he comes across as the most openly manipulative, seen handing out large sums of money to black churches, in effect buying their votes, while using disgraced leader Ricky Hendon as his campaign manager, a man with no ethical barriers whatsoever, leaving out that he is a former State Senator who was forced to resign due to his connection to a scam of fictitious federal grants that sent 7 others to jail, where his associates were charged with passing out $25,000 grants for after-school programs like they were candy.  Easily the most cynical political operator behind the scenes, ruffling feathers wherever he goes, a believer that everyone is corrupt, Hendon actually wrote a book in 2010 entitled Backstabbers, the Reality of Politics, where a reviewer describes him as The Clown Prince of Illinois Politics - The Beachwood Reporter.  Ricky “Hollywood” Hendon certainly comes across as the buffoon of Chicago politics, challenging the signatures of the other black men running against Wilson, where the back and forth sparring between Hendon and Black Lives Matter candidate Ja’Mal Green may be the comedy highlight of the film, with Hendon yapping that the BLM movement “follows dead bodies,” hiring white lawyers to make settlement deals in police misconduct claims, like ambulance chasers following accident sites to make a quick buck, while Green counters that Hendon is the expert on pursuing fraudulent grant money.  The still that follows afterwards may be the most poetically beautiful sequence in the entire film, a wordless montage set to the Christmas sounding jazz music of You've Changed YouTube (4:13) by the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

The film likes to contrast the north and southsides, where they may as well be lightyears apart or on different planets, with the northside completely dismissive of the southside, as if it is a haven of crime-infested gang activity and nothing more, where several people on the street had never even heard of LaQuan McDonald, with a community of privileged whites living their lives completely oblivious to the realities of a black community.  That white delusion is what prevents progress from happening, refusing to view race as an issue that affects white people, believing it only matters to blacks, and as soon as any black person expresses their views, it’s dismissed in its entirety as irrelevant to them, some erroneously describing it racist just for bringing it up.  This deep racial divide has only grown larger, with many entrenched whites growing irritated and hostile at the thought black lives should matter to them.  Simply put, they don’t.  Listening to typical barbershop banter, one from the black southside arguing passionately about what it means being black and one in nearly all-white Bridgeport, a haven for retired cops, where the tone couldn’t be more different, suggesting rioting is what always happens whenever one of “them” gets shot, most likely using the “N-word” off camera, with the cops routinely ridiculing black behavior through a position of white superiority, viewing blacks as an inferior species.  Yet the film also pays tribute to the Bud Billiken parade, a showpiece for southside dancers and marching bands, yet also Chicago politicians (Emanuel is heard getting booed), including a procession of floats, like Chicago’s answer to Mardi Gras, considered the largest black parade in America with a 90-year history.  One of the interesting voices comes from a black neighborhood pharmacy, with the proprietor recalling the days when the southside was filled with black-owned businesses, as it was a bustling part of a vibrant black economy, but all that’s gone now, leaving an economic void, replaced mostly by churches and liquor stores.  Outspoken black radio host Maze Jackson grows angry at the lucrative business surrounding so many black deaths, where activists settle for large sums of money with the Chicago police department, suggesting justice for wrongful police killings is handed out monetarily instead of establishing any legal precedent for holding the police accountable for their actions.  This is further amplified by one of the more assertive black female candidates, Dr. Amara Enyia, who holds a Master’s degree in education, a law degree, and a Ph.D. in education policy, supported by both Chance the Rapper and Kanye (another Trump supporter), making the claim there is $1.7 billion dollars in the city budget for police funding, 40% of the overall city funds, yet $113 million was spent to settle police misconduct claims, not just a sign of LaQuan McDonald, but years of refusing to implement the necessary reforms to mitigate the issue.  Former Vice-President Al Gore shows up in support of Bill Daley, yes, yet another member of the Daley clan, utterly clueless about existing racial strife, yet experienced in the business realm, but does the city really need another Daley?  As if on cue, we see the black employees at a southside restaurant named Daley’s (no relation), a 128-year old Greek diner in Woodlawn, considered Chicago’s oldest since 1892, with plenty of nostalgic photos on the wall of old Mayor Daley.  On a more personal note, a black female Lyft driver is featured, openly displaying a warm, gregarious personality, claiming she treats others the way she likes to be treated, but breaks into tears recalling that earlier in the day as she was waiting, not double parked, a man rudely calls her a “...stupid black bitch,” which really frightened her, especially when no one around told the man to show some respect, or leave the lady alone, an incident that has unfortunately repeated itself throughout the four years of the Trump presidency, each time leaving her devastated.  Former police superintendent Garry McCarthy is another announced candidate, the man who brought stop-and-frisk policing to Chicago, with the camera finding his family watching a debate from TV at home, having drinks, a family of middle-class whites repeatedly making derogatory racial comments, knowing they are on camera, yet still the offensive remarks never stop, blaming blacks for all the city’s woes, and for continually identifying racial conflicts and interjecting race into police shootings of young blacks, with a privileged white family describing that as racist, obviously dumbfounded over the meaning of the word, where it’s plain to see this man will never again get elected to any office in this city for the remainder of his life.  

The original 4-part series culminates with the election, where only 35% of the electorate came out to vote, a remarkably small number, one that would usually favor the Democratic machine candidate, or Toni Preckwinkle, now thoroughly entrenched in the bowels of the machine, a male-centric organization run by the old Irish guard, namely Mike Madigan, who’s been in politics since the days of Richard J. Daley, initially elected in 1971, where he is the longest-serving leader of any state or federal legislative body in the history of the United States, currently serving as the Speaker of the House and Chair of the Illinois Democratic Party for over twenty years, wielding more power than anyone else in the state, and that would include the governor, Chicago mayor and two United States Senators, as his political war chest is siphoned off to various candidates in need, so nearly everyone at one time or another is beholden to him, where he’s viewed much like a Godfather, an old Mafioso figure who’s got his hand on every business venture across the state, where nothing happens without his approval.  A recent corruption investigation hasn’t slowed him down, where he operates in near stealth mode.  Another variation of that is the crusty old alderman from the 14th Ward since the late 60’s, Ed Burke, the longest serving alderman in Chicago history, chairman of the coveted Finance Committee for nearly 35-years, recently forced to resign his chairman’s position due to federal corruption charges from attempted extortion for allegedly using his political office to drive business to his law firm, yet that didn’t stop him from getting reelected.  Dapperly dressed in his fedora hat and pin-striped suit, these two men resemble mafia types, as they’ve been entrenched at the center of Chicago politics for literally half a century, and they’re still at it.  Once a proclaimed reformer from an independent Hyde Park ward, Toni Preckwinkle has served as the Chair of the Cook County Board for the past decade, a prestigious and powerful position that makes her a political insider, beholden to both Madigan and Burke, joined at the hip, despite claims of independence, which at this stage in her career is a farce, as she’s sold her soul to the power brokers.  She was the heavy favorite going into the election, remaining at the top of the polls throughout the campaign, yet she is a terrible campaigner, unable to think on her feet, clumsily reading from her notes, making little eye contact or interacting with the public, surprised by a late surge from Lori Lightfoot who ended up winning by a small percentage, with the top two facing each other in a run-off election a month later, with Lightfoot winning 73% of the vote, the first openly lesbian black woman to hold such a prestigious position in America, turning the election into some historical significance.  Almost immediately, however, Lightfoot came under fire, as the Covid health pandemic eviscerates Chicago businesses, forcing many to close down for months, some permanently, losing massive revenues, which resulted in making unpopular decisions.  Further exacerbating the times was the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, provoking protest demonstrations around the world, where Chicago was no exception, where it has been a summer of marches and demonstrations, most of them peaceful, but occasionally anarchist groups disguise themselves as peaceful protesters, initiating skirmishes intent on attacking the police, creating violent melees resulting in multiple arrests with many sent to the hospital.  While defund-the-police movements are alive and well in Minneapolis, New York, and Los Angeles, that’s not happening here in Chicago.  The public across the country was initially sympathetic for this expression of racial solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but protests in major cities have been undermined by hidden pockets of infiltrated criminal intent, which have soiled the reputation of the protesters.  At the time of filming (summer of 2020), many businesses seen earlier had shut down, including both barber shops, while 70% of Covid deaths in Chicago were attributed to black residents, an overwhelmingly disproportionate number, as currently blacks comprise only 30% of the city population.  It’s a disheartening statistic, but one that points to the segregated area of the city with the fewest hospitals and the least amount of health care services.  On the radio, Maze Jackson’s blisteringly negative comments on Lightfoot were denigrating and nonstop, actually getting him kicked off the radio network, going rogue and broadcasting from his own unidentified subterranean bunker.  Particularly enlightening was the female staff member working with him who was interviewed at length, claiming she really admires Lightfoot, believing Maze may go too far in his critique, but she enjoys the way he attacks the entire system, as an overhaul of major proportions is needed.  The finale reveals two pre-teenage black girls in their backyard singing Giants, by Ella Henderson, Ella Henderson - Giants - Lyrics [ HD ] - YouTube (3:46), a white UK singer, loving the way they connect to the meaning of the lyric, and loving that conversation they are having with a previously seen black barber now cutting a young boy’s hair outside, with the girls claiming they already have a trademark, GLUTO, Girls Like Us Take Over, suggesting women are ruling the world, so stand aside and get used to it, a sentiment that felt heaven sent.  

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