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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Bill Stamets

3 great Chicago film festival docs tell local stories

Edward Jones, who ran the “policy wheel” game of chance on the South Side, is profiled in “King of Kings.” (Abelart Productions)

The Chicago International Film Festival opened last week with a documentary — “A Compassionate Spy,” by Chicago filmmaker Steve James — and offers more nonfiction fare in its second week and closing weekend. 

International documentaries in the 58th annual showcase included the timely historical essays “A Natural History of Destruction” and “The March on Rome.”

Chicago and Evanston are the settings of three recommended documentaries. Capsule reviews appear below. The first two are world premieres. All three can be watched through the Virtual Screening page on the fest ticket site.

‘King of Kings: Chasing Edward Jones’

“All I know is he was my great grandfather and he was the richest African-American in the United States,” says a descendant of the title figure, just one of many interviewed by director and Jones’ granddaughter Harriet Marin Jones. 

Jones researches the South Side businessman who gave back to his customer base, the Black community. In the 1930s and ’40s, Jones and his two brothers built a big business in numbers or “policy wheel,” an illegal neighborhood lottery where the poor could put up as little as a nickel and wish the three numbers they picked would pay off. 

The family saga is fascinating itself, as we follow Jones from Alabama, to Northwestern University, Paris and Mexico City. The film is also a lens on Chicago’s history of organized crime. Italian gangsters and federal investigators would be the downfall of the patriarch. Now we have the Illinois State Lottery, which the film accuses of doing less for its Black players with its profits than Jones did.

(6 p.m. Oct. 19, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.; 6:30 p.m. Oct. 21, Hamilton Park Cultural Center, 513 W. 72nd St.; free first-come, first-served Rush tickets)

‘No Ordinary Campaign’

Brian Wallach and Sandra Abrevaya’s lobbying of Congress on behalf of ALS patients is chronicled in “No Ordinary Campaign.” (Christopher Burke)

Brian Wallach and Sandra Abrevaya met as campaign organizers for Barack Obama in New Hampshire. They married and were living a good life in Chicago until Wallach got ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Deploying their campaign and media skill sets, they launched a nonprofit initiative to lobby Congress to revise policies to improve life for ALS patients and raise funds for medical research. As co-executive producers of this informative, pro-active film, they extend their messaging screen. 

Director Christopher Burke reveals some, not overmuch, of the mechanics of advancing their agenda. Getting Barack Obama on camera to offer his input certainly helped. Wallach snagged other high-profile allies. Katie Couric will moderate the after-screening panel with Burke, Wallach, Abrevaya and representatives from the Obama Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Foundation. 

(3:30 p.m. Oct. 22, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.)

‘The Big Payback’

Evanston Ald. Robin Rue Simmons pushes for reparations in “The Big Payback.” (Whitney Dow)

Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow co-direct this exemplary documentary that not only tells a nuanced tale of grassroots struggle, but offers itself as a model for organizers in other communities.

Last year Evanston undertook a reparations program — the state’s first — to mitigate a legacy of economic injury to Black Evanston residents due to institutional racism, including the thwarting of home ownership.

Evanston Ald. Robin Rue Simmons is the prime mover and has now moved on to help other municipalities take their own steps. The filmmakers embed her recent efforts in decades of unsuccessful measures in Congress prior to the passing of H.R. 40. Especially interesting to Chicago viewers — and likely to Evanston viewers too — will be the detailed history of the Black community in Evanston.

Simmons, Alexander and Dow are scheduled to appear at the screening.

(1 p.m. Oct. 22, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.)

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