The formula that worked well for executive producers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin in Brick City, their 2009-11 docuseries about Cory Booker’s Newark, N.J., scales up smartly in this eight-episode profile of Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago. Newark in the early part of the decade was on the brink of financial collapse and drowning in murders. Chicago is suffering from gangs and murders and, in poorer neighborhoods, convulsing over Emanuel’s decision to close dozens of underpopulated schools.
Emanuel comes across (at least in the first two episodes) as less sympathetic than Booker did in Brick City, opting, for example, to back multimillion-dollar downtown basketball arena and convention center development when the city plans to close so many schools. Not to say he’s an ogre: Meeting with some youngsters, he tells one about how he lost part of one of his fingers when he was careless when working with a sharp object, and how they should listen when grown-ups tell them to pay attention and don’t run with scissors.
More appealing are a third-grader, Asean Johnson, who speaks out poignantly and eloquently to try to save his school, and Elizabeth Dozier, principal of troubled Fenger High School, who’s led a remarkable revival that’s threatened by violence and a loss of federal and city funding. But then, as Emanuel said, if it were easy to close schools, it would have been done years ago.
The violence in African-American and Latino areas affected by the school closings overhang everything, to the extent that much time is spent trying to decide if it’s too risky for students to even conduct a peace march through the local streets. Dozier is an attractive, energetic alternative to Emanuel and to teachers union leader Karen Lewis, who calls him “a liar and a bully.”
The voices of African-American families in pain over the killings and the threats to the schools are poignant and telling. The cinematography, editing and plain-speaking narration keep the story moving. The elements of life in Chicago — including happy ones, like the Stanley Cup-winning hockey campaign by the Blackhawks — weave together effectively into an entertaining and eye-opening mix.
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