Director Steve James has been making films for more than 30 years now, earning two Oscar nominations along the way: Best Editing for his landmark 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, and Best Documentary Feature for the 2016 film Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.
One of his foremost skills as a filmmaker is one seemingly anyone could develop: to listen.
“I think one of the things making documentaries pushes one to do is to listen,” he tells Deadline. “It’s a form of filmmaking that benefits greatly by just being open to what people have to say to you, and being genuinely curious about what they have to say.”
James is not the only good listener in his family.
“My wife is an actual counselor, who has training in psychology, and for a living, she has to listen to people, and really listen to people. And I think filmmaking is my way of doing that too,” he notes. “The whole point is to try to come at it from a standpoint of understanding people, not hearing what you want to hear, not listening to make a judgment, but to really understand people. Like Roger Ebert said, ‘Movies are the great empathy machine.’ I think it’s particularly true of documentary… Documentaries at their best, that’s what they’re about. They do other things too. They grab you by the lapels, and make you pay attention to things that you might ignore. They express outrage. They do a lot of things, but at their heart, they listen and help us understand the world and understand people.”
‘City So Real’ Trailer: First Look At Steve James’ Timely Sundance Docuseries Ahead Of Nat Geo Premiere
James did a lot of active listening for his National Geographic docuseries City So Real, a wide-ranging portrait of Chicago, where he has lived for decades. He ventured across the city, speaking with residents of all ethnic backgrounds and classes, documenting attitudes about race and economic opportunity in the context of a hotly-contested mayoral election.
“I had an excuse to really sort of go far and wide, and meet people from all kinds of different neighborhoods. The truth is most of the filming I’ve done in this city in the past has been confined to besieged neighborhoods on the West or South Side,” he explains. “Not exclusively, but whether it was The Interrupters, or Hoop Dreams, those films took me to very specific parts of Chicago… whereas this series gave us the opportunity to spread our wings much wider, and explore and capture the city on a much grander scale. And that was always exciting, and liberating, and thought-provoking.”
For the five-part series, now in contention for Emmy recognition, James also spent a lot of time with many of the candidates who ran to succeed Rahm Emanuel as mayor, including community activist Amara Enyia, businessman Willie Wilson, entrepreneur Neal Sáles-Griffin, and attorney Lori Lightfoot.
City So Real pulls back the curtain on an (arguably) absurd process just to get on the mayoral ballot. A candidate must gather at least 12,500 signatures to qualify, but rules give contenders wide latitude to challenge each other’s ballot signatures; in the 2019 race, one operative went so far as to challenge every single signature gathered in support of a rival’s candidacy.
“I had no idea just how Byzantine and ruthless it could be,” James admits. “Chicagoans, particularly of the political class, love to brag about how tough Chicago is politically. I don’t know that that’s something we should be bragging about… Politics is a tough game no matter where you are, but what makes it tough in Chicago doesn’t necessarily make for great leadership and great governance, because what often comes with that is backstabbing and gamesmanship and corruption.”
Lightfoot ultimately won election in a runoff. Before City So Real aired, James offered her the opportunity to screen the series.
“One of the things we like to do with our work is share what we’ve made with principal subjects before [release], and give them the opportunity to weigh in, and never with a premise that we’ll change anything for them. Not handing over editorial control at all, but a genuine desire to hear what they have to say,” James reveals. “The films have always gotten better through that process over the years. And so we tried to do the same thing with her, and I didn’t hear back from her.”
But then well after City So Real’s release, James says he heard from Mayor Lightfoot “out of the blue.”
“She texted me and she said, ‘Finally getting around to watching the series. Watched the first two episodes. Really enjoying it. Maybe we can have a beer once I get through it.” And I texted back, ‘That would be great.’ But then I never heard another peep out of her,” says James. “I’m guessing that she’s really busy, and that could account for it completely. And it also may be that she wasn’t too crazy about episode 5.”
That final episode looked at how Lightfoot was doing after taking office, and criticism of her by dissatisfied constituents.
“Episode 5, we come in on a situation where she’s really starting to get pushback from people, particularly the progressive community, over some of her positions, and that’s the reality of the job. And so, I have no idea why I didn’t hear another peep out of her, but it could be that she decided she didn’t really want a beer with me after all,” James muses. “But I think in terms of how she’s doing, I have great empathy for what she’s up against. This is a hard-ass city to be a mayor of, and there’s so many issues that have not been dealt with over the years that she has to deal with. And then heaped on top of that is the pandemic, and [protests surrounding] George Floyd, and everything connected to that.”
James has become as closely identified with Chicago as late radio personality Irv Kupcinet, or late Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko. But he’s not from the city originally. He grew up in Virginia, and arrived in Illinois after following his then girlfriend and now wife Judy to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He studied film at SIU.
“We moved up here [to Chicago], and I started Hoop Dreams, and then just never left, and fell in love with the city, and continued to make films here, and elsewhere, but a lot of stuff here,” James says. “Not in any way to equate myself at all, but one of the things I learned on doing Life Itself on Roger Ebert, was that Studs Terkel wasn’t born in Chicago, and if you say, ‘Who’s the quintessential Chicago journalist?’ people will say, ‘Studs Terkel.’ And I don’t think Nelson Algren was born in Chicago. So there are these iconic figures of Chicago’s literature and journalistic world, people that are identified as true-blue Chicagoans, who were not born here. So I take some comfort in that.”