Editor's note: This review was originally published on October 22, 2021.
At the beginning of “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” a television interviewer asks the former mayor what he would like a future historian to write about his administration.
“He’d probably say, ‘That was a turning point — that was a turning point,’ ” Washington responds.
“Punch 9,” a new documentary covering Harold Washington’s time as mayor from 1983 to 1987, takes this idea seriously, examining a brief and near-revolutionary interlude in Chicago with an eye sharply attuned to its historic nature — both the awareness of the people living through it that they were making history and their reflections, 30-plus years after the fact, on the hard-fought triumph and melancholy aftermath of Washington’s short reign.
Harold Washington and the documentary’s director, Joe Winston, both have deep connections to Hyde Park: The mayor lived in the neighborhood during his time in office, while Winston grew up here and attended Kenwood Academy. Winston’s previous work includes a documentary adaptation of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, the 2004 best-seller by Thomas Frank — another former Hyde Parker — examining the groundswell of populist conservatism in the American heartland.
(Locally, or at least in the Herald’s offices, Winston is best-loved for “This Week in Joe’s Basement,” his public access television show that ran in the late 80s and early 90s out of his parents’ house.)
Political journalism is not new territory for Winston, then, and “Punch 9” — available to screen virtually at the Chicago International Film Festival through this weekend — deftly sets up its stakes at the beginning. Into the mid-'70s, Chicago is governed by Mayor Richard J. Daley, who presides over a vast and tentacular patronage system that privileges white ethnics and neglects Black neighborhoods. “The trains ran on time, but the schools were still segregated,” runs one commentator's description.
Daley’s sudden death in 1976 creates a power vacuum. Fellow Bridgeporter Michael Bilandic takes over, but not after a turbulent interlude during which Ald. Wilson Frost, the Black president pro tem of City Council, tries to declare himself acting mayor. Washington, then an Illinois state senator, observes that Frost would have become mayor if he were white.
During the terms of the next two mayors — the hapless Bilandic, undone by a 40-hour blizzard, and Jane Byrne, depicted in the movie as someone who betrayed the Black voters who delivered her into office — Black activists and politicians begin looking around for someone to run for the office. They settle on Washington, who had attempted an unsuccessful primary campaign against Bilandic in 1977 and was elected to the U.S. House in 1980. Reluctant to give up his D.C. sinecure, he asks for 50,000 new registered voters; with the help of Black activists like Timuel Black, who passed away on Oct. 13, 2021, that number is easily surpassed. (In a moment the film, to its credit, doesn't play up, Washington also says of the mayoral post that “it might kill you but, boy, you’d sure look good sitting in the saddle.”)
The archival footage of Washington on the campaign trail and in press conferences makes for the film’s most compelling moments. It’s like bearing witness to a force of nature — not just for the power of his easy charisma and eloquence, but for how inevitable he makes his own ascent appear. He mocks Byrne charmingly during a primary debate; he’s seen kidding around with a young boy at a campaign rally. “Reporters have to carry around their dictionaries to figure out what he’s saying,” recalls Hyde Parker Jacky Grimshaw, just before we see Washington call federal housing codes “antediluvian.”
The documentary is crafted almost wholly out of archival footage and contemporaneous interviews with notables like David Axelrod, Jesse Jackson and Valerie Jarrett. It makes for an immersive experience — watching grainy news reels, I felt lifted back in time to a city both familiar and a little strange, with its older cars, frumpier fashions and more overt racism.
When I spoke with Winston in 2019 while he was fundraising for the documentary, he said that he was worried that Chicagoans were beginning to forget some of the realities of Washington’s time. “Harold Washington, if we do nothing, is in danger of becoming just sort of an icon, a Santa Claus,” he said. “Like a simplified figure that people can evoke when it’s convenient, without taking into account who he was or what he did.”
Taking its cue from this concern, “Punch 9” focuses much of its attention on the harsh realities of racial politics, and the implacable opposition of white politicians and residents to Washington’s campaign and subsequent mayoralty. Bernard Epton, Washington’s Republican opponent in the 1983 general election and a state representative from Hyde Park, used the campaign slogan “Epton for Mayor...before it’s too late” — hardly a subtle nudge to white ethnic enclaves in the city. (One of the film’s most interesting interviews comes with Epton’s guilt-ridden, lachrymal son, who compares his father’s campaigns events to Nazi rallies at Nuremberg.)
Even after Washington’s narrow victory over Epton, his time in office is difficult, to put it mildly. He is obstructed at every turn in City Council by a bloc of 29 aldermen, all but one of them white, led by Eddie Vrdolyak and Ed Burke.
Vrdolyak, on the night of the election, had reportedly told the precinct captains under his command that “It’s a racial thing … don’t kid yourself. I’m calling on you to save your city … We’re fighting to keep the city the way it is.” While neither he nor Burke were interviewed for the film, the assurances from then-allies like Dick Mell that the issue was more about power than race ring hollow.
Washington is able to work around this deadlock at times, implementing the anti–machine Shakman decrees and instituting affirmative action in city hiring. (The reality of Washington’s relationship to the patronage system is perhaps a little more complicated than we’re led to believe, as the political scientist Anne Freedman showed in a paper written shortly after his death.) He is also able to move funding toward a more equitable, neighborhood-first model.
City Council does eventually flip in his favor and he wins a second term, but Washington never really gets a chance to enact his full agenda: On Nov. 25, 1987, he slumps over at his desk during a discussion with his press secretary; he is pronounced dead of a heart attack that afternoon. “Punch 9” shows us the scenes from a prayer vigil downtown, where hundreds of people gather and begin to grieve after the news of his death is announced.
Part of the tragedy of Washington’s untimely passing, the documentary suggests, is what came after — an unraveling of anti-patronage measures and the re-marginalization of the South and West sides, as Richard M. Daley assumed the city’s mayorship in 1989 and proceeded to hold it for a record-setting 22 years. It is difficult to reconcile any of this with the determination and joy of the ascent; watching it, a gloom begins to set in.
At the end of the film, we are shown present-day footage of Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police protestors from the last several years, alongside an excerpt of Lori Lightfoot’s 2019 victory speech on the night she became the third Black mayor of Chicago: “One day, you will stand on my shoulders, as I stand on the shoulders of so many...the shoulders of political giants, like the late, great Harold Washington."
This is a strange juxtaposition — are these meant to represent two hopeful aspects of Washington’s legacy? If so, we should admit that they are in tension; many of the participants in the recent social movements are deeply suspicious of electoral politics, and Lightfoot herself criticized protesters on multiple occasions last summer. But the film seems reluctant to acknowledge this, and the coda feels more like a half-hearted stab at hopefulness than a reflection on our continuities and breaks with the past.
If we return to Washington’s words at the beginning of the film — that his administration represented a “turning point” — we might take them as a fact, and search our present, often in vain, for the progress he promised. But we might also hear them as a wish, unfulfilled through no fault of Washington's own. Then the film becomes something deeper and sadder, an archival examination of a city swept up in a movement that promised radical change, and watched with the knowledge that much of that change failed to materialize. By showing us history in vivid detail, “Punch 9” inhabits the spirit of a time whose promise still haunts us.
“Punch 9 for Harold Washington” is showing at select AMC theaters in Chicago through Oct. 14. Visit punch9movie.com for more information and showtimes.