Cooked: Survival by Zip Code (2019)

739 residents perished in the deadly Chicago heat wave back in 1995. How or why could something like this occur in a wealthy city like Chicago, a city that should be well-versed in disaster preparedness. It’s hard not to think of the same lack of support, resources and the utter chaos surrounding New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina destroyed several communities. The forces that affected Chicago remain a factor in the majority of America’s cities, and those forces need to be examined further. That’s essentially the thesis statement of this new film. The many layers surrounding this horrific occurrence in Chicago history are dissected in an educational, often confrontational manner in Cooked: Survival by Zip Code. The title itself has layers since Chicago is a part of Cook County, but the word cooked can also be viewed as an informal adjective, meaning “altered dishonestly.” Residents certainly should have received support, check-ins from city workers, and a whole lot more during this particular summer, but the city let them down in a way that cost hundreds of lives along with continuing inquiries as to how this even happened.

Director/producer Judith Helfand become a self-professed “Disaster Detective” in hopes of solving a complicated mystery of sorts. The film’s timeline surrounds the actual event as well as the city’s response from Mayor Daley’s attempts to minimize the severity of the heat. There was also coverage surrounding enormous food refrigeration trucks called in to store all the bodies of those who’d fallen victim. The lack of accountability and prioritizing begin to interweave, creating a sense of urgency and frustration at the same time. In a way it does play similarly to Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke, showing how systems fail. I was also reminded of another terrific, underseen documentary simply titled Rat Film. That highlighted a rodent problem—as well as the humans that love them, live with them, and kill them--to explore the history and current state of the city of Baltimore. Rat Film had more vignettes, broken into pieces, while Cooked is streamlined into narrative. But the intention is clear: there is a need to highlight how governments fail to help the impoverished. One scene reveals that Chicago once received a substantial grant to deal with tornado relief, when there’s been maybe one death in the last century because of tornadoes in the city. This isn’t tornado alley so this revelation of mismanagement is one of many. All you begin to think and feel is “how and why does this type of ignorance continue to happen?” There are several moments and questions like that contained here that you should discover for yourself. The answers aren’t necessarily laid out which is frustrating but that’s also the intention behind covering such a multifaceted piece of trauma.

It’s important to point out that Helfand finds the right balance between being serious, educational and entertaining with presenting such distressing information. There are some light touches of levity and irony in ways that don’t feel as forced as the well-intentioned style of Michael Moore, who often lays down a message with a heavy hand. Helfland knows how to present the information in digestible ways that are easy to comprehend but stir difficult emotions throughout. Though it does have its share of talking heads and straightforward presentation, it’s still material that needs to be absorbed particularly for how it touches upon macro-level issues that often get swept under the rug. Cooked: Survival by Zip Code is a potent statement surrounding the long-term political crisis of poverty along with the heartbreaking consequences of social isolation and institutional racism. It’s a strong pronouncement and an important examination that couldn’t come at a better time. See this documentary any way that you can, spread the word and continue having the conversation that should’ve been had with the powers that be back in 1995.

Currently playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center, here in Chicago Illinois. Click here for showtimes:
https://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/cooked-survival-by-zip-code

James Laczkowski