The Chicago Film Archives took a nearly 15-minute promotional film and put it on YouTube – so we can now see how the city’s establishment wanted to view itself back in 1977.
NOW I WAS 12 years old back in that year – notable because it gave us Michael Bilandic as mayor (whose reputation hadn’t been whacked by snow yet) and actually had a “July 31” with both the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs in first place and many fantasizing about an all-Chicago World Series.
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Of course, that didn’t happen. Now, the Internet is filled with assorted people complaining about the distorted image that film gave of the city as a whole.
After watching the film myself (the DNAInfo.com website for Chicago published a feature Friday about it), I have to admit my initial reaction was to wonder how a city that was roughly split equally between white and black people (and not quite as many Latinos as there are now) could appear to be so white?
Then again, I think back to the mentality of the era and remember how little attention official Chicago paid to the South Side neighborhoods that had in the mid-to-late 1960s developed majority African-American neighborhoods.
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ALMOST AS THOUGH they had sunk into a black hole when all the white people left places like South Shore or Gresham to live in suburbs like Oak Lawn or South Holland.
So the idea that the people who shot the video for the film sponsored by the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Illinois Tourism Bureau naturally looked for images of white people is predictable.
The part of the film where then-WBBM-TV news anchor Bill Kurtis narrates copy talking about Chicago’s diversity gave us footage of all kinds of people in ethnic garb – and several intense seconds of a Greek belly dancer in a particularly-skimpy costume.
There were shots that look like they came from Chinatown, and also some footage of Asian ethnics who appear to be a part of a tourist group – as though these “foreigners” were checking us out (and also spending their money in Chicago).
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WHICH WAS KIND of the point of this whole exercise.
In fact, the only signs of black people I saw was one quick glimpse of a taxi driver, and an extended sequence of a parade with black people as spectators and participants.
Which makes me think it was from a Bud Billiken Parade from the early 1970s – check out all the afros (the hairstyle) amongst the male participants.
Then again, that wasn’t the only sign that this was the era following the Age of Aquarius, but prior to the Reagan Years.
MANY PEOPLE WILL laugh about the presence of “discotheques” and the sight of so many white people trying to “get down and boogie.”
Although what I noticed was the idea that few of those people had any real dance moves. They were just sort of waving their hands about and trying to writhe and wriggle in time to the music.
The film “Saturday Night Fever” really was a fantasy in terms of the idea that anyone looked like John Travolta’s “Tony Manero” character. At least as far as Chicago was concerned.
As far as those people who were ranting on Friday that the film was “too white,” I’d have to say that this is the image of Chicago that Richard J. Daley would have wanted the world to see.
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IT WAS ALSO the image many white Chicagoans had of their city – which is why there were so many people who were thoroughly, and utterly, shocked on that day in the spring of 1983 when Harold Washington actually won a Democratic primary election for mayor.
We are better off for acknowledging the larger Chicago; a city where white, black and Latino are headed toward parity, with a sizable Asian population as well.
Although I can’t help but think that whenever I hear people complain about Chicago being too dominant (Gov. Bruce Rauner made such comments earlier this week) over the rest of Illinois, I wonder if they’d have less of a problem with that concept if the city were more truly like this decades-old PR image in the video.