What Does City So Real Tell Us? That Reality is Complicated.

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City So Real, a five-episode National Geographic/Hulu documentary chronicling the 2019 Chicago mayoral race, lands, in its entirety, on Hulu today.

I know, I know. Some of your eyes glazed over when I mentioned “the 2019 Chicago mayoral race.” Most of us don’t live in Chicago, and I suspect that many of us want to avoid the word “politics” for the next several months. But the truth is, few cities surpass the political theater of America’s so-called Second City. Director Steve James (who also brought us the much-acclaimed 1994 doc Hoop Dreams) leads us by the hand through one of the most tumultuous elections in Chicago’s history (21 candidates wound up vying for the job), examining the issues, the candidates and the city’s byzantine, slightly unhinged political system.

From a Plugged In perspective, the doc has some issues. One of the story’s central candidates, Lori Lightfoot, is striving to become the first LGBTQ mayor in Chicago history. Language can get pretty frank and raw. (I’m told that the worst expletives have been censored for the PBS and Hulu versions of the show, but they weren’t in the advance screener that I saw.)

And, of course, the documentary deals with scads of political issues, many of which go well beyond Chicago’s city limits: class, race, gentrification, etc. In the concluding episode—which takes place about a year after the election—James and his team see the city struggle with the coronavirus and roil with racial upheaval in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. And no matter where you land on those issues, you’ll surely hear voices that’ll have you shaking your head or rolling your eyes.

But that, in a way, is the power of this story. With more than five hours dedicated to examining Chicago in all its wild, sometimes fractious, diversity, City So Real reminds us of something very simple but incredibly important: Life, and its issues, are complicated.

In modern America, we can sometimes divide society and culture and, especially, politics, into “us” and “them.” On election day, we’ll certainly hear plenty of talk about progressives and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, red and blue.

Those divisions are helpful and illustrative, to a point. But City So Real—though it takes place in a predominantly progressive city—reminds us how misleading those labels can be. Chicago may look blue, but that apparent homogeneity hides bewildering variations in color, hue and texture.

This documentary doesn’t just give us two sides of an issue: It reminds us that every issue is less a line (with parties lining up on either side) than it is a bewildering polygon, featuring eight or 12 or 20 sides. Yes, City So Real shows some very real, predictable divisions. But it also reminds us that, sometimes, people who vote for the same candidate have wildly different priorities. It lets its subjects talk about those priorities—and it forces us to listen to them.

That’s important in these polarizing times, I think: The listening. It doesn’t mean we will, or should, change our minds over the issues. But when we listen, we might learn from another’s perspective. And most importantly, we’re better able to see the person behind that perspective, digging past the label or stereotype.

And I’m not just talking about political or cultural issues here. Honestly, this truth is just as important at home as it is in city hall.

As moms and dads, we try to avoid stoking that sense of “us” and “them” at home. We tell our kids to share. We encourage them to see arguments from their brother’s perspective, or their sister’s. When we run into conflict with our own children, we do our best to see the issue through their eyes—even as we remain focused on what we need to do. That doesn’t mean we don’t have serious disagreements or fights. But in the family, we don’t want to foster a sense of “us” and “them.” There, it’s just … us.

City So Real reminded me that for all our myriad of important differences, our society should, perhaps, be thought of more along the lines of a family: People disagree. They fight. And sometimes, they’re just dead wrong. But sometimes, it’s just as important to learn how people came to their “dead wrong” conclusions as the conclusions themselves. In understanding not just the “what,” but the “why,” we may find a creative solution.

Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.