Chicago Heights (2010) and Hogtown (2014), the first two installments of a projected trilogy by writer-director Daniel Nearing, both made their local debuts at the Black Harvest Film Festival at Gene Siskel Film Center, and they return this week in honor of Black History Month. Yet Nearing is a white artist drawing heavily on white literary sources: Chicago Heights is adapted from Sherwood Anderson's classic story collection Winesburg, Ohio, and Hogtown is an unacknowledged remake of Roman Polanski's Chinatown. One might cry foul if both movies weren't dominated by richly detailed black characters, and if Nearing weren't so interested in bridging divides—not only between white and black experience, but between the past and present. Both movies take place in the 1910s, yet the shooting locations include such anachronistic sights as Millennium Park and the Picasso in Daley Plaza. Anderson conceived of his Winesburg as a hick town that could be anywhere; Nearing sets his stories a hundred years ago, but they could be happening anytime.
Chicago Heights—released on DVD as The Last Soul on a Summer Night—establishes from the first frame that Nearing, despite his writerly debt to Anderson, has a dramatic sense of cinema. Shooting mainly in black and white, he creates powerful compositions with subtly canted angles, eerie backlighting, and striking symmetries; when he slips into color to record a lovers' kiss, the effect is breathtaking. Like Winesburg, the south suburb of the title is a podunk town whose people dream of the big city but can barely escape their own self-imposed isolation. A high school student with a talent for writing (Andre Truss) falls in love with his English teacher (Michaela Nicole) and destroys their friendship by coming on to her; a local pastor (Jay Johnson) yearns to redeem a fallen woman (Simone Wilson) but can't get her body out of his mind; and a psychotherapist (Benny Stewart) treating a terminally ill woman (Keisha Dyson) fills his pockets with scraps of paper on which he's recorded the philosophical truths revealed to him by patients.
For the more accomplished Hogtown, Nearing replaces the earlier movie's omniscient voice-over narration with onscreen captions (wisely so) and the episodic structure with a knotty detective story about a token black cop (Herman Wilkins) trying to track down a missing millionaire. The story takes place in Chicago, Hog Butcher for the World, and walking its streets are such real-life figures as Jack Dempsey, Sherwood Anderson, and Ernest Hemingway (the last two of whom become friends and then enemies). The most important historical reference, however, is the 1919 race riot that consumed the south side for several days after a black kid swimming in Lake Michigan drifted into "white" waters and was stoned to death. Folded into the detective story, this serves as a reminder of how brutally one can be punished, then and now, for crossing an invisible line.