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“Fire” paints a whitewashed image of Chicago

By Scott Ellingson, section editor: bloc[K] beat (selling2@uic.edu)

Next Wednesday, NBC will air the season finale of “Chicago Fire.” It’s middling ratings mean it is looking at another season of Dick Wolf’s sweaty fireman melodrama set in our fair city. Surprisingly, the show is filmed on-location by my count no more than a handful of neighborhoods: Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Tri-Taylor, River North, University Village, and obviously The Loop.

The problem with “Chicago Fire” isn’t that it’s formulaic or that Dr. Chase from House probably learned his Chicago accent from a Lincoln avenue bartender who’s actually from a small town in Ohio. Those foibles are to be expected, it is a television show and so the plot lines have to be melodramatic. The actors have to be a few sizes slimmer and a few shades tanner than real Chicago firefighters are. Despite the tag line of “It’s the Closest You’ll Ever Get”, it’s not a documentary.

It’s said that Hollywood never does poor well. In the movies, the broke waiters and over-educated baristas of America live alone in 2000 sq. foot bungalow apartments whose conceit to paucity is that they don’t have a dishwasher or an ocean vista.

The problem with “Chicago Fire” is that it’s filmed in gentry-vision. Gentry-vision is what I call it when nothing south of Roosevelt road or west of Western exists. This set of Caucasian colored glasses make the actual fires and actual paramedic plots of the show seem like they take place in another galaxy. A galaxy where all homeless men are white and all fires destroy cute three-story brownstones with mansard roof additions on leafy side streets. The houses are usually owned by modest-looking white folks with two point five soot-covered children. These are just two examples from last night’s episode.

Are there white homeless men sleeping on Wacker drive? Absolutely. Are there white people in Chicago who’ve lost their homes to fire? Absolutely. The problem is when the stories of the white property owners become the only stories and everybody else gets nothing. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless says that 75% of the homeless Chicago are black. How many are white? About 16%. So less than 1 out of every 5 homeless men in Chicago are white, yet “Chicago Fire” chose a white Irishman for that role. Chicago Public Schools says that 98% of it’s homeless students were black children in 2011.

Besides the fact that the image of Chicago on the show is a whitewashed pastiche of wealth and privilege, the minority characters on “Chicago Fire” are rarely the center of the action. The moments that focus on the mixed-race rookie, played by Charlie Barnett going back to his family’s restaurant should be cliché, but they’re played true to the life that goes on every day west of Western, and they are compelling television.

How can “Chicago Fire” be racially homogeneous if the chief of the firehouse is black? It’s true that the Chief of the house, played expertly by Eamonn Walker, is black. The problem is that his character rarely gets the screen time to do more than offer nuggets of terse wisdom to Dr. Chase, et al. We should all remember that Mammy ran the house in Gone with the Wind, and I fear that Walker’s character won’t get enough screen time to become more than that, when the camera is more concerned with Dr. Chase and the astonishingly handsome Lt. Severide making significant glances at each other from across the firehouse.

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