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DVD REVIEW -- Cheat You Fair

Cheat You Fair: The Story Of Maxwell Street

DVD

Cheat You Fair DVD art

by Mike O’Cull

                Cheat You Fair is an excellent documentary film written, produced, and directed by Phil Ranstrom that details the rise and fall of Chicago’s famous Maxwell Street open-air market that, at one time, was one of the most vital points of city culture. Maxwell Street became a haven for the homeless and beaten-down following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and remained a place for people to try to get their lives restarted until its demise in 1994. The unregulated outdoor market saw every ethnic group that ever came to Chicago co-existing and doing business all in the same place; it was a mostly peaceful spot in the middle of a tough, urban environment. The film does a great job telling the story of the Maxwell Street area through film and interviews and gives those who never experienced the place a first-hand account of what it was like to be there.

                Especially important to the story of Maxwell Street, and Chicago in general, is the relationship between Maxwell Street and blues music. Maxwell Street was the home of the blues in Chicago in a very street-level way and was the place to be for any aspiring musician looking to play for people, learn from other musicians and become known. The noise level of the place required players to use electric amplification to be heard over the din, which ushered in the modern musical era. The vintage film footage of Maxwell Street performers and their acts featured in Cheat You Fair is worth the price of admission by itself and really is the heart and soul of the film. Especially touching are the interview clips with blues great Junior Wells, who was a large part of the scene on Maxwell Street and who died before the film could be released. Also interviewed: Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite, Studs Terkel, Bob Koester and many more. The 90-minute documentary is smoothly narrated by Chicago actor Joe Mantegna.

                The film also details the sad, final days of Maxwell Street and features interviews with Maxwell regulars on the last day of the market in 1994. There had been many attempts to shut Maxwell Street down over the years but in ’94 the City of Chicago sold the land housing the market to the University of Illinois at Chicago and it was subsequently converted into private businesses and dorms for UIC students. The film tells the story of the big-money interests winning out, as they usually do, and the inevitable loss of local culture and history that usually follows. Anyone who ever visited Maxwell Street knows that it was more than the land it sat on;  it was the people that came together there that made it matter and made history, and Cheat You Fair does a fine job of imparting that to its viewers. Really, the film is a story of what we often call ‘progress’ and the human cost it requires us all to pay, in one way or another.

                Cheat You Fair is a fitting memorial to the place and the people that were Maxwell Street and should be required viewing for all Chicagoans. Sometimes history seems so dead and dusty that it is hard for many of us to relate to it, but this film brings to life something that newer city dwellers will never get to experience that really should still be there for them to see. Those of us who were lucky enough to spend even a day there will never forget how cool Maxwell Street was and the impact it had on Chicago as a city and on each of us, as well as the people who lived and worked there.

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