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Chicago suffered the worst heat disaster in U.S history in 1995, when 739 residents — mostly elderly and black — died over the course of one week. As COOKED links the deadly heat wave's devastation back to the underlying manmade disaster of structural racism, it delves deep into one of our nation's biggest growth industries: Disaster Preparedness.

Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl, Everything's Cool), uses her signature serious-yet-quirky connect-the-dots-style to forge inextricable connections between the cataclysmic natural disasters we're willing to see and prepare for and the slow-motion disasters we're not. That is, until an extreme weather event hits and they are made exponentially more deadly and visible.

But whether it was the heat wave in Chicago or Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma and Maria, all of these disasters share something key: they reveal the ways in which class, race, and zip code predetermine who was living on the edge to start with, who gets hurt the worst, who recovers and bounces back--and who doesn't. In COOKED, Helfand challenges herself and others to truly see and respond to the invisible man-made disasters taking place in towns and cities across the country before the next 'natural' disaster hits.

COOKED is an adaptation of 'HEAT WAVE: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago' (2002), Eric Klinenberg's groundbreaking book.

'Cooked chronicles the painful truth that waiting for the government can be hazardous to your health. The twin vulnerability of poverty and race placed African Americans at special risk in the 1995 Chicago heat wave. In America, zip code is more important than genetic code and some people and communities have the wrong complexion for protection.' Dr. Robert D. Bullard, Professor, Urban Planning and Environmental Policy, Texas Southern University, Author, Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina

'This film is searing, smart and insightful...The film asks important questions with humor, humility, and humanity. This film can be used in a wide range of classrooms with social and ethnic studies and health policy as well as in public contexts of churches, community groups, and other venues.' Julie Sze, Professor of American Studies, Founding Director, Environmental Justice Project, University of California - Davis, Author, Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice

'This searing, visceral post-mortem of the 1995 Chicago Heatwave...reminds us of the painfully deep spatial inequities and injustices that are baked into the very DNA of US cities. It reminds us that a systematic Poverty Emergency Plan would be more effective and pre-emptive than a Heat Emergency Plan and that so called 'natural' disasters are anything but natural, representing instead our collective failure to address poverty and inequality as an everyday crisis.' Julian Agyeman, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University, Author, Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning, and Practice

'Cooked is a jolting reminder of the tragedy, and a scathing indictment of the social conditions that allowed so many to die - with the overwhelming majority of victims being minorities, the elderly, the poor...For those who don't know the story: You need to see this movie.' Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun Times

'Remembering not just the consequences of past socially created disasters, but also the causes, is a central challenge facing governments and individuals alike. Cooked tells a powerful story about the ways racial capitalism and a persistent lack of foresight collide to devastate communities, destroy families and ruin lives...The film forces us to think about the ways centuries of white supremacy and poor urban planning continue to require ethical and lasting changes to how we define disasters, and just as importantly, how we prepare for them.' Nik Heynen, Professor of Geography, Co-Director, Cornelia Walker Bailey Program on Land and Agriculture, University of Georgia

'Insightful...[The filmmaker] doesn't pull her punches...she addresses the situation head-on, explaining the real reasons why so many people died during this little-recognized disaster, chief among them segregation and poverty.' Cine-File

'A much-needed slap in the face to the American people...It's time that those of us with privilege do something to help those who don't.' Lorry Kikta, Film Threat

'Cooked: Survival by Zip Code shines a light on the issues of poverty, race, class, and education that underlie how natural disasters take lives.' Brian Tallerico,

'Helfand's brilliance in Cooked is precisely the way she shifts and re-orients our entire social mentality and approach to thinking about racism, poverty, and disaster. She asks us to think about and re-define racism and poverty as, indeed, disasters.' Tim Libretti, People's World

'Cooked locks in the details, vividly...Make[s] for enraging viewing...Re-examining that summer will always, always be worth the time and trouble. And the outrage.' Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

'[Helfand] makes a persuasive argument that it's time to broaden the definition of disaster--to include the vast and ongoing economic and community inequities.' Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune

'Those struggling to survive day to day, the film successfully argues, are already behind the eight ball long before a heatwave, hurricane or tornado ever hits. It's a stark realization, to be sure.' Lisa Trifone, Third Coast Review

'Makes a compelling case that it was not just the heat but poverty and racism that led to so many deaths.' Paul Caine, WTTW Chicago PBS

'Provides a sobering look back at one of the worst natural disasters in Chicago's recent history while shedding much-needed light on the slow-moving, man-made crisis of socioeconomic inequality that threatens not only the most vulnerable zip codes in Chicago, but cities and towns across the country.' Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago

'Cooked is an homage to those forgotten and left behind in the wake of disaster. It's a fervid call to redefine notions of 'disaster' and invest in security and dignity among the vulnerable before disaster strikes.' Diana Hernandez, Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University

'This searing, visceral post-mortem of the 1995 Chicago Heatwave reminds us of the painfully deep spatial inequities and injustices that are baked into the very DNA of US cities. It reminds us that a systematic 'Poverty Emergency Plan' would be more effective and pre-emptive than a 'Heat Emergency Plan' and so-called 'natural' disasters are anything but natural, representing instead our collective failure to address poverty and inequality as an everyday crisis.' Julian Agyeman, Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University, Author, Introducing Just Sustainabilities: Policy, Planning, and Practice

'This is an important film that makes the often missed connections between poverty and environmental harms. Simple solutions to environmental threats focused solely on environmental responses will leave too many people in danger. I highly recommend this film for broadening awareness of the links between environmental justice, social justice, and poverty.' Nancy C. Loeb, Clinical Associate Professor of Law, Director, Environmental Advocacy Clinic, Northwestern University


Main credits

Helfand, Judith (film director)
Helfand, Judith (film producer)
Doremus, Fenell (film producer)

Other credits

Editor, Simeon Hutner, David E. Simpson; original music by T. Griffin; cinematography, Tod Lending, Stanley J. Staniski, Keith Walker.

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

African-American Studies
American Studies
Climate Change/Global Warming
Environmental Justice
Food And Nutrition
Human Rights
Political Science
Race and Racism
Social Work
Urban Studies


disaster capitalism; Chicago; 1995 Chicago heat wave, structural racism, systemic racism, manmade disaster, disaster preparedness, growth industry, class, race, zip code, climate change, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, Eric Klinenberg book, selling fans, selling air conditioners, refrigerated trucks, Linda Rae Murray, medical examiner, autopsies, Dr. Edmund Donoghue, non-violent deaths, crisis intervention workers, South Side, West Side, Gold Coast, Mayor Daley, poverty, epidemiologist, cooked, poor communities, under resourced, social autopsy, Cook County, task force, Paul Dailey, heat emergency plan, emergency command center, rebuilding levees, Section 8 housing, FHA, Federal Housing Association, contract buying, white speculators, redlining, segregation, life expectancy, 9/11, World Trade Center, billions of dollars, New Madrid Earthquake zone, MREs, FEMA, cooling program, absence of investment, eating healthy, access to healthy food, fresh moves, growing home, urban organic farm, Orrin Williams; "Cooked"; Bullfrog Films

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