Steve James interview: ‘City So Real’ documentary
When the filming of “City So Real” was completed, Steve James had a lot of material to sort through to construct the eventual docuseries. “All together, we probably shot for about a year and we certainly shot over 400 hours of material,” James tells Gold Derby in our Meet the Experts: Documentary and Nonfiction panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). Other than focusing on the mayoral race in Chicago and the trial for the police officer who murdered Laquan McDonald, James didn’t want to have too firm idea of what the project would be. The point, he says, “was really to embrace the uncertainty and the serendipitousness of capturing the city at this time.”
“City So Real” premiered on National Geographic Channel back in October and can now be streamed on Hulu. It chronicles the chaotic race for mayor of Chicago in 2019, which saw 14 candidates attempt to succeed outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel and was ultimately won by Lori Lightfoot. The campaign takes place in the midst of the trial over the killing of McDonald who was killed by a Chicago police officer while McDonald was walking away from him. The series was nominated for two Emmys including Best Documentary or Nonfiction Series and Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program.
One of the more astounding things that James caught with his footage was the surprisingly disastrous campaign of Toni Preckwinkle, who entered the race as an overwhelming favorite to win. “When she threw her hat in the ring, people said, ‘Oh well, she’s going to win because of her longtime political stature or connection to the Chicago machine.'” But when it came time to do basic retail politicking, Preckwinkle was incredibly rusty and wouldn’t be able to articulate her positions without notes on the issues. “When you saw her on the ground, you saw that she just wasn’t a good candidate and a weak candidate. And that makes a huge difference.”
Getting these two Emmy nominations was a big deal for James, partly because he’s never been nominated at the Primetime Emmys before. It’s also partly because it showed the series connected with people. “This was particularly thrilling for me and for the team that, that city so real broke through and got these nominations.” But the nomination that James has a special spot for is actually the cinematography nomination. “My son Jackson James, who I’m thrilled is nominated along with me for cinematography. That was, that was the thrill of a lifetime.” James has had rough experiences with awards bodies in the past. The most notorious of these was “Hoop Dreams” not getting an Oscar nomination for Documentary Feature, which is still considered one of the biggest snubs in Oscar history.