‘Chicagoland': An Unscripted Saga Of City Life

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When President Barack Obama spoke out last week against the crime, violence and poverty that ensnares young men of color in epidemic numbers, he might have been voicing a promo for “Chicagoland,” the docuseries debuting Thursday on CNN.

Noting ruefully how “we assume this is an inevitable part of American life instead of the outrage that it is,” Obama set the stage for more than one Chicagoan to be featured in the show.

There are outrages aplenty in “Chicagoland” (whose eight episodes air Thursdays at 10 p.m. and repeat at 1 a.m. Eastern, with additional encores). But the series isn’t a finger-wagging jeremiad, nor is it an unrelieved bummer to watch. While often disturbing, it is also hope-inspiring, and never less than dramatically addictive.

CNN has given over this airtime to independent filmmakers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, whose many collaborations include the Peabody Award-winning series “Brick City,” a portrait of Newark, N.J., and Cory Booker, its then mayor, that aired on Sundance a few years ago to great acclaim.

Employing the same immersive, multi-stranded style of storytelling, “Chicagoland” chronicles a pivotal year in the life of a major heartland city and some memorable locals.

Prominent among them is Elizabeth Dozier, a dynamic young principal who has transformed her South Side high school from what had been a daily war zone into a safe haven in a neighborhood still riddled by gang violence.

Another “star” is Garry McCarthy, steely superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, who, as Newark’s police director, played a major role in “Brick City.” Now in Chicago, where a long list of problems includes the city’s 70,000-strong gang population, McCarthy has a wry take on his mandate: “to save the world – can’t you tell?”

But no one on “Chicagoland” casts a longer, more commanding shadow than Rahm Emanuel. Formerly a senior aide to President Bill Clinton, a U.S. Congressman and Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel during 2013 is at the midpoint of a bruising first term as Chicago’s boss. Among his battles, he is clashing with the powerful teacher’s union as he pushes for a moneysaving consolidation plan that would close 54 under-enrolled schools, many in poorer neighborhoods whose population has dwindled.

The vote, which would affect some 30,000 students, looms in May 2013. Emanuel argues that reallocating resources will improve public education overall. But the viewer can’t help but be troubled by the opposition’s comeback: Closing a neighborhood school could imperil its displaced students when they’re forced to make their way to a newly assigned school through city blocks controlled by warring gang factions.

In a heartbreaking scene, tears roll down a young girl’s cheeks as she describes her fright at crossing a certain street, a “gang line” that marks rival turf where “they even tried to beat on my little sister, and she’s only in the first grade.”

But the you-are-there immediacy gets more graphic.

Alice Thomas, the mother of a second-grader who, two years earlier, was shot while outside playing, explains how, were her school to be closed, the still-traumatized child might come face-to-face at her new school with relatives of the person who shot her.

Then, a few moments later, the camera re-encounters Thomas shortly after her boyfriend was gunned down in front of her.

“I just fell to the ground and balled up,” says Thomas, who, when she got up, found him dying.

“You happen to be down the street and a shooting happens,” Levin recalled last week at the Manhattan production offices of Brick City TV. “You end up on the porch of a family, talking to them, before even the authorities are there.”

“It’s hard when you’re trying to focus and you have tears in your eyes,” said Benjamin, who recounted his filming the funeral of a local man who had served in Iraq and then, returning to the `hood, was shot in the back. “You can’t believe you’re seeing this.”

But not all of “Chicagoland” is grim. Chicago’s beauty, brio and, a few El stops north, its prosperity are also part of this saga.

“This is a tale of two cities,” said Laura Michalchyshyn, another of the series’ executive producers. “That’s been a big challenge: finding a balance between both kinds of stories.”

The first step in the storytelling process, according to Benjamin: “Overshoot.” He said three film crews, one led by him, were deployed in the Windy City for much of last year, amassing 1,000 hours of video. (And they still haven’t wrapped: As recently as Sunday, “Chicagoland” cameras caught Emanuel’s icy dip in Lake Michigan as he made good on his pledge of a “Polar Plunge” if the city’s children read 2 million books.)

But from that vast trove, how could anyone identify the key narratives and personalities?

“You take the footage into the editing room as late into the night as possible, when you’re about to fall asleep,” said Levin. “Then, when something you see really opens your eyes, you know that’s the beginning.”

From beginning to end, “Chicagoland” is certain to open its audience’s eyes.

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