Steve James’ expanded documentary series ‘City So Real’ on NatGeo earns rave reviews

Critics at this year’s Sundance Film Festival were effusive in their praise for “City So Real.” Over four installments, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) chronicled a year in the life of his adopted home of Chicago that saw a heated race for mayor, as well as a highly controversial and publicized murder trial of a police officer who killed a black male teenager.

Indiewire’s Ben Travers called it an “utterly gripping” portrait of the third-biggest U.S. metropolis. “City So Real,” noted Travers, “encapsulates more than just a historical moment for Chicago. James isn’t telling the story of an American city, but the American city; Chicago’s problems are America’s problems, from our divisions to our strengths.” As he noted, “‘Significance’ is a word that gets tossed around a lot when discussing topical entertainment these days but ‘City So Real’ carries its weight effortlessly…Steve James’ latest is a flat-out must-see.”

For’s Brian Tallerico “what separates ‘City So Real’ is its filmmaker, a man who simply approaches his form differently. I’ve said before that James I none of our most emphatic filmmakers, someone deeply interested in human stories and that comes through in the casual footage of ‘City So Real.”’ The documentary, he added, “could have been a deeply dry look at the candidates, but James and his team are constantly placing them against the greater backdrop of the city and its people, who James knows better than any filmmaker alive. He is a Chicago filmmaker through and through, and he brought that energy to Sundance again this year.”

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But audiences will see an expanded “City So Real” when it premieres commercial free Oct.  29 on National Geographic; it will be available on Hulu beginning Oct. 30. The series originally ended with Lori Lightfoot winning the mayoral race in a landslide in 2019. But then the pandemic hit shortly after Sundance. So, James decided it was imperative to return to the streets of Chicago to document not only how COVID-19 has affected his beloved home, but the eruption of racial tensions sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May by the Minneapolis police and Lightfoot’s turbulent first year as mayor.

Critics have been equally enthusiastic in their praise for this super-sized version of “City So Real.” The Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson writes, ‘”it’s hard not to feel a great deal of affection for the people it portrays, just for having the fortitude, or loyalty to persist in a place that’s portrayed as one hot mess even when it’s 19 degrees below zero.” As he observes, “for all the hardball politicking the movie captures, the acrimony between the police and the public and the notorious murder rate, ‘City So Real’ also represents the documentary as art film. It’s an impressionistic, peripatetic tour of Chicago in the very present tense that movies fluidly among the clashing, contradictory hierarchies, neighborhoods and institutions that just don’t struggle, but seem to be in a constant state of competition.”

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Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times describes the series as a “sprawling, epic Tom Wolfe nonfiction book caught on film, as it captures stories huge and small, showcases the astonishing beauty and the heartbreaking blight of Chicago and introduces a number of memorable real-life ‘characters’ in multiple storylines set against the big-picture backdrops.” Many of the images in the final episodes, he noted, “are all too recent and familiar to Chicagoans. A curfew is enacted. Protesters and police clash. Some folks are wearing masks; other refuse to do so. Chicago is the American city, but in 2020, it’s like so many other American cities.”

The New York Times TV critic Margaret Lyons encourage viewers to “break it down into two sittings; chugging complexity is perhaps not the move….Some documentaries zoom all the way out so the viewers can see the whole forest, but the director Steve James, whose other work includes ‘Hoop Dreams’ and ‘American To Me,’ zooms all the  way in focusing on the personal and intimate and specific-and how it feels to be one of the trees.”

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