Not at All without Hope: Steve James on City So Real

Director Steve James talks about his process and passion in shooting City So Real, his new doc, which recently screened at the 2020 True/False Film Fest.

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Not at All without Hope: Steve James on City So Real

It is entirely reasonable to perceive City So Real as Steve James at his most personal, which might come as a surprise to those who have seen Stevie, an unwieldy 140-minute examination of the broken life of James’s eponymous, now-grown child mentee, Stephen Fielding. But there is perhaps no film that exudes the collective essence of his body of work as much as his latest. Though James casts himself as a fully fleshed character in Stevie, often introspective and guilt-ridden over his perceived abandonment of Fielding during the man’s formative years, the film’s gaze is primarily external despite its reflexive turns and emotional proximity to its subject. James is forced to confront more moral and ethical quandaries in Stevie than most filmmakers do in a full career, and yet his observational work is so alive, so probing, that it remains unmistakably a portrait of Fielding.

City So Real, on the other hand, is ostensibly about a Chicago in crisis amid the trial of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was charged with the first-degree murder of Laquan McDonald in 2018, and the crowded 2018-2019 mayoral election. The film’s most immediate charms do not come from navigating these threads, however. For all its outward perspective, it feels more than anything else a film in which James is expressing a very particular and complicated affection for his home city. In that way he synthesizes his finest films.

City So Real retains the sprawling intersectionality of America to Me but reduced to a tidy four hours, and at times echoes the place films of Frederick Wiseman, like Belfast, Maine or Monrovia, Indiana, in its commitment to documenting such a comprehensive array of people, spaces and conversations. James replaces Wiseman’s distance with closeness, using chance encounters with the likes of dog-walkers and Uber drivers to provide essential shading of this multifaceted city portrait. He makes excursions to seemingly every corner of Chicago, highlighted by a graphic that appears on screen to indicate which neighborhood this barbershop, or this dinner party, belongs to.

As James weaves between these revealing vignettes and scenes of embedded access with several mayoral candidates, City So Real takes a sweeping look at the public and private lives of Chicago, of the political machine and of everyday sidewalk stories, of life at work and sometimes at home. Exploring racial and cultural contradictions that often lurk just below the surface, James’s camera seems to parse the dissonance and cacophony of city noise to locate each individual voice for a brief moment. Beneath the scaffolding of the election, these brief encounters amass (miserable Bears fans watching a shanked field goal end their season outside the window of a packed bar, a canvasser trying to stick his candidate’s sign in the frozen winter earth) to the point that the minutiae transcends itself. We see a collection of moments that speak to James’s understanding of humanity, often troubled, mundane and optimistic all at once.

Paste spoke with Steve James about City So Real, which he recently screened in attendance at the 2020 True/False Film Fest.

(Note: This interview has been condensed for content and clarity.)

Paste Magazine: How was City So Real originally formed in your mind? Were you always planning on using the mayoral race as a frame, or were you looking for a frame that fit other goals?
Steve James: I’ve wanted to do a mosaic portrait of Chicago for a long time now, but I wanted to find the right time to do it. There had been different junctures over the years where I thought, ‘Maybe this would be a good time, maybe that would be a good time,’ but then when this mayoral election came along, that—coupled with the fact that the Laquan McDonald trial was going to be happening at the same time—made me think that this was the ideal time to try and do it. And [since] so many people thought they could be mayor of Chicago in the most wide-open mayoral race in a long, long time, I just thought Chicago does find itself at this critical crossroads.

But I didn’t know going in how much the mayoral race was going to dominate the story or not. I tried to be open to wherever it all took me, including not confining myself to the mayoral race either, so that there were other issues and other stories that came to the fore.

Paste: It is truly a tapestry because of all these wonderful interludes, from the city hall marriages to the barbershops, the theater tour, the Bears game segment. It creates this sort of sweeping portrait. At times it feels a little bit like a Frederick Wiseman movie.
James: [laughing] The board of elections stuff. Our joke was I could have made a Frederick Wiseman film called “Board of Elections.” We shot so much there, and it was exactly the kind of thing he would have totally dove into, and he would have made the decision to make the whole film on that.

Paste: What I mean by the comparison is there’s comprehensiveness to his films. I wasn’t keeping track, but as the map graphic highlighted which neighborhood you were in, I wondered if you would hit every single one.
James: We didn’t, but we hit quite a few. If I’d made it 10 hours long, we could have probably hit every neighborhood. We wanted to get our arms broadly around the city, but at the same time let what unfolded direct our attention. And so we followed serendipitously where we were led. When [mayoral candidate Paul] Vallas goes down to Daley’s Restaurant on the South Side with his wonderful political operative Phil and is trying to drum up people to come talk to him, we saw that as a great opportunity to mix the political campaign with this restaurant, which truly is a Chicago institution, in a revealing and humorous way. And then when the homeless woman just started talking to us and us to her, it turned into this other thing where she told us about her life and then sang that beautiful christmas carol to the [Daley’s] patron. And that was the whole idea with this film, to kind of let it lead us where it leads us. And we met some amazing people as a result of that.

Paste: What do you think is the value of those digressions?
James: I never wanted to lose people in this process, you know? The individual people in the streets, or in the restaurants, or dinner parties or barber shops. For instance, when we went to the one barbershop, the Black barbershop on the South Side. Our initial reason for going in there was that that was the barbershop where Harith Augustus, the barber who was killed by the police, worked, and we’d already shot a scene where they were confronting the police during a vigil in the streets. I said, ‘I’d love to go back to the barber shop and find out from the guys that work there who Harith was.’ At that point, in death he was just a symbol for many people of police brutality, and I wanted to know, ‘Who was this guy?’ So we went to the barbershop, and we did have the guys talk about Harith, but then the guy from the post office wandered in—

Paste: That’s one of the most incredible scenes in the movie.
James: I agree, and that’s what it wanted to be about. It no longer wanted to be about Harith, it wanted to be about that. And that of course spurred us to want to go to a South Side white barbershop and just see what happens. And in that scene, we didn’t know they were cops until we’d been there for a while. So, the way that scene unfolds, the viewer doesn’t know anything about these guys’ backgrounds until the end, and then you find out that a bunch of them are retired cops who have strong feelings—that’s exactly how it played out for us.

It was really this kind of constant act of discovery making the film, and letting it lead us to people, whether it was the shoeshine guy, or the married couple that worked in the election and voted early, the Black woman and white man who met in the nursing home. All these people we just encountered, it’s what I love about documentary, and I loved about this particular documentary—that everything was fair game. When we went out during the day, we would go out with certain ideas of what we were gonna get, and the rest of it was: ‘Let’s just see what happens.’

Paste: As far as access on that more intimate, on-the-street level: How do you describe what you’re doing in the Black barber shop, for example, where this argument breaks out and you’re a white man with a camera in this space? How are you navigating that in the moment?
James: Well, in that particular scene I was there, but it was shot by Kevin Shaw, who is an African American filmmaker who worked with me on America to Me. But it was wild to be there because at a certain point I started to feel like we had caused this big argument to happen by being there. But then towards the end, after we had had this big long conversation, I just thanked them all for their candor, and said, ‘That discussion is about a really fascinating delineation of Black privilege’: [The guys in the barbershop] looked at this guy who was in the service and worked in the post office as having been taken care of in a way that too many Black men aren’t. And there’s a lot of truth to that; [the guy from the post office] is a very self-made man. I just remember towards the end I said to all of them, ‘Look guys, as far as I’m concerned you’re all impressive in terms of what you’ve had to deal with and how you’ve dealt with it.’ And it was almost like they all kind of went, [dismissively] ‘Oh great! Yeah, yeah thanks.’ We were not that important at a certain point because the conversation was just too important.

I find that happens a lot. My whole approach is to not make it a big deal of what we’re doing. We shoot very small, team-wise. Two people crews is pretty standard for me. It’s about just relating to people. If people want my attention or have something to say, I’m always very interested in what they have to say, and I think that encourages them to open up and be more forthright about their lives and about what’s going on, what they think.

Paste: I don’t know how impromptu some of the filming is, but with the Uber driver in the Care Bear suit, for example, how do you in such a short time establish such a strong rapport?
James: I think on some level I’m a people person, and I find humor is one of my best tools. I make it sound calculated, but if people have a sense of humor I can usually find a way to engage with them. The Uber driver was a perfect example. We got in the car not to film her, but to just get a ride from one location to the next, so I was sitting in the back seat with [producer] Zak [Piper]. I told her what we were doing, and she was like, ‘Oh, I love [mayoral candidate] Amara Enyia.’ And she started to talk about Amara, and I said, ‘Oh, wait a second. Do you mind if I sit in the front seat and just film you and have you talk about how much you like Amara?’ She was a very outgoing and engaged person. I got in the front seat thinking she was just gonna talk about Amara Enyia and about politics and about her take on the election. Then, I asked her about the Care Bear uniform because I knew she was kind of tickled with it, and then she just—it wasn’t me prodding or pushing—she just opened up and told us this story about this altercation she’d had earlier in the day and got very emotional about it. She kept driving and we kept talking, and she way overshot where she was supposed to take us. It turned into its own thing. She was kind of remarkable in that way.

Paste: Regarding the mayoral candidates, with Lori [Lightfoot] in particular, some of your most intimate access is with her. Was that fortuitous that it ended up being her who won the election?
James: That’s the documentary gods smiling, ultimately. But I really had to push that access. Lori herself sort of liked the idea of what we were doing, she definitely got it, this portrait of the city through the election, and she was familiar with my work. She was supportive, but her press people weren’t. They did not see any great virtue in her allowing us in. So, it was a combination of perseverance on our part and Lori’s receptivity that we were able to circumvent her press people on a number of occasions to get the kind of access we got.

You know, at the time I didn’t think she was gonna win. I just thought she was an utterly fascinating candidate. And that governed a lot of the choices we made. I thought Amara Enyia was a really fascinating candidate [too], and she was very receptive. I probably could have done a whole film just on her candidacy with the amount that we shot with her, but we ultimately left a lot of that out. I chased a number of candidates, got access to some of the ones I really wanted, and some I didn’t, but I think we were still able to show you what they were about. [Toni] Preckwinkle for example: Her scenes are quite revealing even though we never got inside.

And frankly, the other thing is that I didn’t set out to do a traditional political documentary. I wasn’t trying to do The War Room.

Paste: Zooming out to your career, is this an extension of the broadened approach that you took on in America to Me? Obviously Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, those are very expansive but also more channeled. Is this big opening up something that you’ve always wanted to do? Is it something that the format now has allowed you to do?
James: I think it’s both. We did a docuseries many years ago, came out in 2004, called The New Americans, where we followed immigrants over the course of three years. There was a team of filmmakers, and that was a pretty ambitious undertaking. It was a 7-hour miniseries that played on public television, which in some ways I feel like was kind of ahead of its time because people weren’t doing that kind of docuseries back then.

With America to Me, I didn’t intend to make something that was 10-and-a-half hours long; it became 10-and-a-half hours because we followed so many damn kids. And the same was true with this. I did go into this planning to do something that was different in the way it comes together, and it is very much that, but I didn’t necessarily expect it was gonna be quite as ambitious as it ended up being. I’m just a big believer in letting the film take you where it takes you, which is probably why I’ve got a bad habit of making long films, because I just get so deeply immersed in it. I want all of that complexity and nuance, as much as possible, to be in the work.

Paste: So what do all these people in City So Real say about Chicago to you?
James: That Chicago is a very racially segregated city. Some people say it’s the most racially segregated city in America, and that may be true. You certainly see some of that racial tension and different views in this city, and you see this disconnect, depending on what part of town you live in, with what’s going on in Chicago.

But it’s also an incredibly passionate place. I don’t agree with everything that everybody says [in this film], but there’s a lot of passion no matter who’s doing the talking, [a lot of] strong feelings, and I think that’s a signature of this city. So, I feel like it is the quintessential American city. What this city is wrestling with is what America is wrestling with, especially urban America. But I’m not at all without hope because there is such passion and people care so much. I don’t want you to walk away from this film depressed about Chicago’s future, but it is a sobering look at Chicago nonetheless.

Daniel Christian is a writer and filmmaker based in Columbia, Missouri. In addition to Paste, he has written for Filmmaker Magazine and No Film School. You can follow him on Twitter.

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