Selected for last year’s SXSW, Nick Budabin’s compelling fly-on-the-wall sports documentary Chi-Town (available now on iTunes) follows Chicago-born African-American college basketball star Keifer Sykes over the course of several years, as he pursues his big dream of playing in the NBA.
At a swift and precise 79 minutes, Chi-Town packs a lot in. There’s a case to be made that from the hours and hours of footage, a truly modern epic could have been fashioned. But was Budabin concerned about Hoop Dreams imitation? It can’t be denied, the iconic 1990s Chicago-set doc haunts Chi-Town, but that shouldn’t be seen necessarily as a bad thing.
Instead, the quarter of a century distance between Hoop Dreams and Chi-Town is a very sobering reminder of how very little has changed. If anything, conditions have worsened. Chicago these days sadly goes by the nickname “Chi-Raq”, because residents feel like they’re living in a war zone, given the crime and murder rate. The doc, therefore, can serve a socio-political function as much as offer a well-honed sports-themed American Dream-type story.
Sykes is a good kid from a good home in a bad neighbourhood. Gangs operate on every street corner and mistaken identity shootings are rife. Early sequences featuring the subject driving around crackle with a thriller-like menace. Outside trouble, however, feels a world away from the Sykes home. Keifer hero-worships his father, James (who passes away during the film) and adores his mother and siblings. The documentary shows how important it is for kids to have role models and how positive dynamics and moral values passed down in the home can affect what happens on the streets. It’s a simple but profound truth picked up by the camera.
Two main narrative threads are woven together skilfully, by director Budabin: Sykes’ journey from school champ to college star and the portrait of a neighbourhood bedevilled by crime and murder. Born and raised in the notorious South Side of the Windy City, but going to school on the West Side, the sense of escape and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is countered with Sykes’ lack of interest in abandoning those left behind. Like the subject, Chi-Town is admirable, humble and hopeful.
Nick Budabin’s Chi-Town is now available on iTunes in the UK, US and Canada.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn