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(WASHINGTON, D.C. – Aug. 3, 2020) National Geographic today announced the acquisition of CITY SO REAL, an official Indie Episodic selection at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, set to premiere on the network this fall. From twice Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Steve James (America to Me, Hoop Dreams) and his longtime producing partner Zak Piper (Life ItselfThe Interrupters), the fascinating and complex portrait of contemporary Chicago delivers a deep, multifaceted look into the soul of a quintessentially American city, set against the backdrop of its history-making 2019 mayoral election. 

Following its Sundance world premiere, Paste Magazine declared: “There is perhaps no film that exudes the collective essence of Steve James’s body of work as much as his latest…. 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.”

From Participant and Kartemquin Films, CITY SO REAL’s rich and intricate story was originally conceived as four one-hour episodes, but the premiere on National Geographic will exclusively feature an epic fifth episode that follows the COVID-19 pandemic and social uprising following George Floyd’s death. The announcement was made by National Geographic Global Television Networks President Courteney Monroe during the network’s session at the Summer CTAM press tour.

The series begins in the haze of mid-summer 2018, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, embroiled in accusations of a cover-up related to the police shooting of an African-American teenager, Laquan McDonald, shocks the city by announcing he won’t seek reelection. An unprecedented 21 candidates emerge in a diverse and crowded field as they engage in a no-holds-barred battle for a chance to shape the city’s uncertain future. 

From the summer of 2018 through the spring of 2019, James, Piper, as well as James’ son, filmmaker Jackson James, and a diverse team followed the historic, often contentious mayoral election. Scenes from the streets, luxury high-rises, barbershops, campaign offices and nightclubs are skillfully juxtaposed by editors David E. Simpson (America to Me) and James to create a mosaic of life in the Midwest’s most racially, culturally and economically diverse city. 

In candid interviews with residents throughout the city, the series captures Chicago’s indomitable spirit as well as its seemingly insurmountable challenges. CITY SO REAL is a gritty and loving depiction of a quintessentially American city that is at once fiercely unique and a microcosm of the nation ⎯ and our world ⎯ as a whole.

“Chicago is an enormous and enormously diverse urban environment that wrestles with issues of race and segregation and violence, which is the story of America today,” says James. “You see evidence of that everywhere in the series from the barbershop conversations to the people watching the debate. All cities have their boosters, but there’s something unique about the passionate love and civic pride Chicagoans have for their city. The documentary captures the beauty and the richness of a very complex city, while also showing how divided it can be.” 

“The portrait of Chicago through Steve’s unique storytelling lens is one that will powerfully resonate across the country and elsewhere,” said Diane Weyermann, Chief Content Officer for Participant.  “We are thrilled to be working with our friends at National Geographic to share this deeply human, nuanced character-driven series, which boldly weaves together an unflinching and illuminating story of contemporary America.”    

“We are thrilled to be partnering with the extraordinary Steve James and the team from Participant Media on CITY SO REAL, a profound and intimate portrait of life in every American city that could not be more timely,” said Monroe.  “We look forward to showcasing this ambitious and impactful documentary series, including Steve’s newly filmed fifth hour capturing the pandemic and the civil unrest gripping our nation.”

The team employed a creative filmmaking approach, exposing disparate personalities and campaign styles of the candidates, along with Chicago’s lively, visceral, and human personality. The beauty and richness of a complex city made it easy to leverage Chicago’s abundant musical history woven in through existing tracks from artists with roots in the city to pay homage to the music scene with original compositions by Will Miller and his band Resavoir, resulting in an infectious soundtrack. Additional music includes an eclectic and diverse group of musicians Including Jamila Woods, JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound and Devil in a Woodpile.

“Labeling “City So Real” as the Chicago self-portrait of the new century is a start. The finish, as

James reminds us throughout, remains up to those who rule, live and die here.”

– The Chicago Tribune

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