The City & State sidebar in the Chicago International Film Festival lineup is a section of movies dedicated to works produced by locally based filmmakers, dealing with stories set in and around the area. This year’s lineup of titles is anchored by a trio of informative documentaries that serve as often eye-opening explorations of the city’s past and present that local audiences will no doubt find fascinating. At the same time, the themes and issues that they deal with are universal enough that the stories that they tell can be appreciated by viewers residing well outside of the state limits.
“King of Kings: Chasing Edward Jones” finds filmmaker Harriet Marin Jones working to uncover details of the life of her grandfather, Edward Jones. As a child, Edward moved with his family to Chicago during the Great Migration and would go on to become perhaps the richest African American in the entire country with a fortune calculated at hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s money. Having originally considered going into medicine, he, along with brothers Mack and George, soon went into business for themselves running a game known as Policy—a precursor to state lotteries in which players would put down a small amount of money on a daily number drawing in the hopes that they would pick the right one and win the payoff that was popular in Black neighborhoods. The amounts the players put in might have been small—which is why the game thrived even in the face of the Depression—but so many participated that Jones’ concern, which became the dominant one on the city’s South Side, was reportedly pulling in as much as $20,000 a day.
Although the game was, of course, illegal, Jones was largely left alone. Jones used the power and prestige brought on by his fortune to help establish the Bronzeville neighborhood into the center of Black-owned business in the U.S. at the time, solidify the increasingly important African-American vote, and associate with such luminaries as Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington. Although Jones was able to stave off attempted takeovers of the policy racket by the Italian mob run by Al Capone, an ill-fated venture with gangster Sam Giancana would prove to be his undoing, leading to the downfall of his once-thriving empire and a near-erasure from the local history books that would leave him an enigma even amongst his own descendants.
With little to go on in the official record, director Jones conducts her own investigation into her grandfather’s life, utilizing archival footage (including film of Jones testifying during the widely-seen Kefauver Committee hearings investigating organized crime), present-day interviews with historians, family members and people who knew him (featuring no less a figure than Quincey Jones, who first encountered him and his family as a young child), visits to the long-shuttered locations where he built his success and even a few striking moments of animation to boot. Although not exactly groundbreaking in terms of cinematic technique, the story that Jones recounts is so undeniably compelling that few will notice—it is the kind of grand and sweeping crime saga that seems tailor-made for a lavish screen treatment. At the same time, however, the film also works on a smaller and more intimate level; "King of Kings" is a story of someone exploring their familial roots and coming to terms with the unexpectedly vast and far-reaching legacy they manage to uncover along the way.
Mercedes Kane’s “Art and Pep” is another film that works as both an intimate personal story and as a broader historical exploration. On the one hand, it recounts the endearing love story of longtime partners Art Johnston and Pepe Pena and how Sidetracks, the video bar that they opened in a small storefront in the city’s north side in 1982, would grow to become a still-thriving part of Chicago’s LGBTQ community, surviving everything from AIDS to COVID-19. At the same time, the film also serves as a primer showing the evolution of that community as a whole as it began to fight back against HIV/AIDS and anti-gay discrimination in increasingly public ways that would eventually lead to reforms and the beginning of the Equality Illinois advocacy group.
For those who were around in the city during the time, the film will feel like a time machine, evoking memories both tragic and triumphant. But even though it does illustrate how much things have changed over the past 40-odd years, it also serves as a reminder that there's still much more to be done, especially at a time when LGBTQ are under renewed attack. The film also nicely conveys the story of Art and Pepe, both in terms of their love for each other and for the community that they have served, figuratively and literally, for so long. The result is a real charmer.
In 2019, the suburb of Evanston, Illinois, led by the efforts of Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, became the first city in America to pass a resolution calling for a reparations program for Black residents that would distribute $10 million (derived from a cannabis tax) over a ten-year period. Considering that past attempts at instituting reparation programs have traditionally failed to be implemented, one might assume that Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow’s “The Big Payback” dedicates its entire running time to following the indefatigable Simmons as she manages to succeed where the likes of William Tecumseh Sherman and John Conyers had failed. In fact, that aspect is dealt with within the first few minutes as the film focuses more on what comes next as Simmons and the residents of the city wrestle with the notion of what form the reparations should take.
Simmons is proposing that they take the form of a housing program that will help do things like fund repairs and help pay mortgages that would help to make up for the misdeeds caused by so-called “redlining” programs that were put into place to stymie growth in neighborhoods with a larger African American population. Others in the community are resistant for a number of reasons. Some are opposed to that approach—they feel that this is merely a regurgitation of programs that have proven to be ineffective in the past and prefer something more direct—while others point out that the amounts in question are far too small to have any truly significant impact. As Alexander and Dow follow the developing story (which ends up going in unexpected directions with the inevitable arrival of COVID-19 onto the scene) through the eyes of both Simmons and a number of her constituents, the film takes what could have been a simplistic feel-good story and transforms it into an ultimately more intriguing and valuable one. "The Big Payback" looks at the contemporary political process in action while serving as a blueprint for others to learn from and adapt into future programs of their own.