Chicagoland is a non-scripted, eight-part series covering our hometown Chicago. The series is produced by Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn of Sundance Productions, and filmed by the award-winning Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin of BCTV. It explores the politics and policy of an evolving city trying to address complex issues in the spheres of education, crime, and inequality. In this Gate series, University of Chicago graduate student, Allen Linton II, will provide a review of each episode and a personal perspective on a controversial portrayal of Chicago. The original posts can be found on Allen’s blog. These posts have been adapted and edited for our readers.
I paused “Second Chances,” episode four of Chicagoland, ten minutes in and needed to reevaluate my situation. I’ve done fairly well going through Chicago Public Schools K-12 and surviving the University of Chicago without too much debt. I’m a PhD student, still at UChicago, and making ends meet—not living luxuriously, but not struggling either. Something felt out of place early in this episode and I could not put my finger on it.
Maybe my lack of fame gave me a better perspective: no paparazzi, no championships, no yelling masses for me. Ten minutes into this episode, I saw Chatham’s Chance the Rapper preparing for Lollapalooza, unaware that he was the least famous person in Lollapalooza’s lineup. He was followed by the rapper Common, Magic Johnson, Dwayne Wade, and Isiah Thomas. Every person in that lineup embodied the duality that Chicagoland emphasizes: this city is a place for fun, but it’s also a dangerous place with poverty stricken neighborhoods. On the one hand, music and sports stars do represent a well-covered side of Chicago which continued to get attention in Chicagoland—the city’s wealth of cultural capital. On the other hand, these stars were in Chicago to promote youth development summer programs and to keep folks off the streets and out of danger.
After the star-studded open, the episode lacked some punch although it probably was the most positive 60 minutes of the series. Summertime Chicago 2013 is a special time for the city but it can be tough to find a lot of deep meaning in these moments.
Both Mayor Emanuel and Superintendent McCarthy proclaimed their jobs as the greatest job ever and the greatest job in the world—a nice sentiment (true to some extent), but lacking substance. Again, this is the frustrating thing about the series—the emptiness in its portrayal of the Chicago as a multifaceted place. For instance, Slam Poetry at the Green Mill could’ve featured several spoken word poems that were critical of Chicago’s politics. We saw tons of youth programming but despite the portrayal, limited summer offerings are a huge issue throughout the city. Hearing from young people that don’t have access to these opportunities could have balanced out the series (not to mention the episode) and lent it some much needed credibility. On the topic of programming and the emphasis on at-risk or incarcerated youth, some greater discussion is needed about the types of programs we have for low income Chicagoans. While gaps at the bottom persist, increasing numbers of young people without criminal records don’t get enough support and become at-risk youth. We didn’t get to see that world, but it’s a big one and a critical one in Chicago.
Our story’s heroes both picked up protégés of sorts with Emanuel taking Martell Cowan under his wing and Principal Dozier fighting for Jason Barrett. Though I do not doubt the genuineness of the emotions on display, these scenes were a little wearing. Nearly every take included Cowan expressing his gratefulness for the opportunity to the mayor.
By far the most compelling story of the night involved Principal Dozier’s fight to secure an early release for Jason Barrett, an incarcerated Fenger graduate. She manages to ensure that he’s able to enter a halfway house to provide structure and a home, job prospects, and tough love. All of this isn’t enough as Barrett deviates from the plan, missing the job interview and leaving the halfway house, and eventually returning to jail on robbery charges. Two parts stood out to me. First, Dozier is the best ally you could have working through the murky criminal justice system. Her efforts and emotion moved me but it reminded me that one person—even a really driven person—cannot possibly help out everyone. The short segments covered months of effort, an amazing triumph of the human spirit.
Second, and this is a larger concern raised by others who watched the show with me, is who is to blame for what happened to Jason Barrett? I don’t usually like to play the blame game but the prevalence of recidivism begs the question. Barrett could’ve done a better job meeting Dozier’s expectations. It is easy to blame him. What about the environment he came from going into Fenger? Role models? Family and Friends? Did he receive the proper education and support growing up? How should we evaluate the powerful claim made by those behind bars, that the jail doesn’t fix you, rather, it makes you a real criminal? I don’t know who to “blame” in this tragedy, but I know the story is a microcosm of the complexities of Chicago.
I have a few more quick thoughts from “Second Chances:”
First, several people noticed Chance the Rapper sporting a “Leaders” hats and gear throughout the episode. Leaders is a local apparel line that began in Hyde Park in 2002 and is happily located in Bronzeville. The store has great stuff and a nice connection to the music space. Learn more about Leaders at here.
Secondly, this episode witnessed a brief appearance from Tom Dart and featured the issue of overcrowded jails in Cook County (and Illinois at large). Though the faces were censored, it wasn’t hard to see most every inmate shown was a person of color. This is another pressing issue in Chicago.
And finally, the issue of Rahm’s flip phone has been solved. Voice of Chicagoland and DNAinfo writer Mark Konkol got to the bottom of it in his My Chicago post “Rahm’s Flip Phone Ridiculed by ‘Chicagoland’ Viewers, but He Stands by It.” The reason is he doesn’t like smartphones with email noises distracting him during phone calls. That rationale is WEAK SAUCE! Get an intern to turn it off.
Four down, four to go.
Table of Contents: A Chicagoan Reviews Chicagoland
1: Episode 1
2: Episode 2
3: Episode 3
4: Episode 4
5: Episode 5
6: Episode 6