Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street

Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street is a 2006 documentary film that details the history of Chicago's Maxwell Street community, including the rise and fall of the Maxwell Street Market.

Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street
Directed byPhil Ranstrom
Written byPhil Ranstrom
Produced byPhil Ranstrom
StarringBo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Uncle Johnny Williams, Nate Duncan, Studs Terkel, Florence Scala, Prof. Steven Balkin
Narrated byJoe Mantegna
Distributed bySelf
Release date
  • December 31, 2006 (2006-12-31) (Chicago)
Running time
90 minutes
CountryUnited States

Phil Ranstrom produced, wrote, and directed the 90-minute film, which is narrated by actor Joe Mantegna. The documentary was edited by Justin Kulovsek at Big Shoulders Digital Video in Chicago. The documentary was featured at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT and the Chicago International Documentary Film Festival in 2007.


"Cheat You Fair" was the name of a store on Maxwell Street. According to director Phil Ranstrom, that name expressed "the spirit of bargaining that went on" at the store and in the street market that operated every Sunday until 1994.[1]

The first act of the film explores the history of Maxwell Street, which began after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Some of the earliest inhabitants were Jewish settlers who came to America during the turn of the 20th century to escape Antisemitism in eastern Europe and Russia. Those who landed at Maxwell Street began selling products from pushcarts and Maxwell Street began to emerge as a place to shop and find a bargain.

The second act of this film looks at the partnerships between blacks and Jews on Maxwell Street and how they influenced modern music. Maxwell Street is considered to be the birthplace of the "electric, urban blues", a style of music which led directly to rock & roll. During the Great Migration (African American), Chicago was an arrival point for thousands of African-Americans, and Maxwell Street was a place where blues artists could earn a living playing for tips in the streets. Because so many artists were playing the blues in one relatively small area, Maxwell Street became the place to learn and to compete with other artist, which accelerated the blues movement, worldwide. With the birth of record companies like Ora Nelle Records, Delmark Records and Chess Records, Maxwell Street became the epicenter for the blues and numerous Maxwell Street artists wrote songs that were later taken by major rock & roll acts like Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin, which is detailed extensively in the film. Featured are interviews and performances with blues artists, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Charlie Musselwhite, Jimmy Lee Robinson, Eddie Burks, Frank Scott Jr., Tony Mangiullo and 99-year-old Uncle Johnny Williams. Chicago author, Studs Terkel, Little Italy activist, Florence Scala, and Maxwell Street icon, Nate Duncan, are also featured. During the making of this film, several of the principal subjects died, including Terkel, Scala, Duncan, Robinson, Burks, Williams and Diddley, and this film includes their last interviews.

The third act of the film examines the shady deals that destroyed this thriving market and the great loss suffered by thousands of poor people. It also explores the importance of a third place like Maxwell Street and what that means to communities.


Cheat You Fair won a 2012 Chicago/Midwest Emmy Award in Category #26 for Outstanding Crafts Achievement Off-Air: Musical Composition/Arrangement.[2] It was also nominated in Category #27 for Outstanding Crafts Achievement Off-Air: Writer – Program / Non-News category [3]


  1. ^ Ranstrom, Phil. "Behind the Scenes". Cheat You Fair: The Story of Maxwell Street (a film by Phil Ranstrom). Archived from the original on January 3, 2013. Retrieved March 19, 2013.
  2. ^ NATAS (October 24, 2012). "2011-2012 Emmy Nominees" (PDF). Chicago/Midwest Chapter National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Retrieved March 21, 2013.
  3. ^ Morgan, Mike (October 24, 2012). "14 indie made TV shows earn Midwest Emmy nominations". Reel Chicago. Retrieved March 21, 2013.

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