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CNN's 'Chicagoland' Examines a Mayor and His City's Schools

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Early in "Chicagoland," the first installment of an eight-part documentary series looking at the nation's third-largest city, the narrator says that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is "obsessive, especially his commitment to shake up Chicago's failing public schools."

It's clear that the city's schools will be a theme for the first episode, and that future episodes will pick up on those themes. That's good, because we need to see more of Fenger High School Principal Elizabeth Dozier, a dynamic presence at a safety-challenged school on Chicago's Far South Side neighborhood of Roseland. The filmmakers deserve credit for steering clear of a trendier, less dangerous, and more media-exposed neighborhood for this facet of the story.

Dozier is trying to keep the school, and its students, free of gang violence. The film points out that instead of the five large gangs that ruled much of Chicago's South and West sides in the 1980s, there are now more than 70 gangs.

"Children start claiming gangs as young as kindergarten," a woman says.

"Chicagoland," which debuted on CNN Thursday night (the first episode will repeat several times in the next few days), is an independent film by Sundance Productions. The producers, Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, did a similar project in Newark ("Brick City") when U.S. Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) was the mayor.

Robert Redford, one of the executive producers, appears at the beginning of the episode to call Chicago "the quintessential American city."

The title "Chicagoland" is somewhat ironic because it is a moniker invented by the legendary Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick to cover the city and its vast suburbs. But perhaps it is fitting since the focus is on Emanuel, who grew up in Chicago's northern suburbs before launching a political career that includes serving as an adviser to President Bill Clinton, a member of Congress from Illinois, and the chief of staff to President Barack Obama. 

Emanuel fought back a legal challenge over pesky residency qualifications before winning overwhelming election as mayor in 2011, succeeding longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley, who had served since 1989 and was the son of the original "boss," Mayor Richard J. Daley (who served from 1955 until his death in 1976).

The storyline in the first episode centers on Emanuel's plan to close 54 underutilized Chicago public schools to save money to improve educational offerings.

"I'm not an education reformer," Emanuel tells a group of schoolchildren. "I believe in educational excellence, and I will adopt any reform that gets me there."

But many Chicagoans object to the proposed school closings because it will mean children will have to cross gang lines to attend their new schools.

"You should be investing in these schools, not closing them," 3rd grader Asean Johnson, a darling of the anti-closing crowd, says at a rally. (Johnson's speech became a YouTube sensation, and there may be more to come from him in "Chicagoland" since his mother told the Tribune that a documentary crew spent a good bit of time with the boy and his family.)

The episode builds toward the outcome of the school-closings battle. (You'll have to watch if you don't remember reading about it.) It was also the filmmakers' good fortune that Chicago teachers went on a brief strike in 2012, with lots of colorful rallies and sharp words between Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

"Chicagoland" is visually appealing, but then, Chicago is a beautiful city. (Disclosure: I was born in the city, grew up in its suburbs, and have lived back in the city.)

I agree, though, with some other reviewers who have found Mark Konkol's narration a bit overbearing. After reviewing quite a few education documentaries in recent months with minimal or no narration, I believe "Chicagoland" would be better with less.

The short clips of what lies ahead in the remaining seven episodes of "Chicagoland" suggest that it will cover a number of other facets of Rahm Emanuel's Chicago besides the schools, but that the schools will still be part of the story. (There will be no less emphasis on Emanuel, and some Chicago reviewers suggest the film comes off as an official campaign documentary.)

If things had worked out differently, the 2016 Summer Olympics would be coming to Chicago instead of to Rio de Janeiro, and the world would have an upclose look a city that has world-class attributes and major failings. It's doubtful that NBC's Olympics coverage would have spent any time at all at a school like Fenger High on the Far South Side.

Instead, CNN's "Chicagoland" is taking viewers to places they probably wouldn't go if they were visiting Chicago, and that's a good thing.

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