3 Questions With ‘America to Me’ Docuseries Director Steve James

By Sameer Rao Aug 24, 2018

On paper, Oak Park and River Forest (OPRF) High School looks like an ideal high school. The suburban Chicago school boasts a graduation rate of 94 percent, average of 17 pupils per classroom, a racially diverse student body and a stated commitment to racial equity. But “America to Me,” a new documentary from filmmaker (and community member) Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), puts that progressiveness to the test.

While the school is encouraging community dialog around the docuseries, which premieres this Sunday (August 26) on Starz, the filmmaker notes that administrators initially resisted his plans to shoot within its halls.

“One of the administration’s stumbling blocks was a worry that we would exploit kids,” James tells Colorlines. “There was a lot of talk about wanting to protect kids. And some of that was clearly genuine, [but] I think that some of that also offered an easy fall-back so administrators could look like they have the right values. That also, of course, would allow them to not have a mirror held up to them as an institution.”

James’ reputation for powerful storytelling about oppression ultimately convinced the school board to let him film, albeit with restrictions, such as not recording in locker rooms and scheduling filming through the communications director. 

The resulting 10 episodes follow 12 students of various races, ethnicities and preoccupations throughout the 2015-2016 academic year. The show draws on these students’ lived experiences—a Black student activist’s disagreements with a teacher, a White-passing girl drawn to her Mexican mother’s culture, Black student athletes who struggle to balance on- and off-field responsibilities, White kids who don’t understand their Black classmates’ critiques—to illustrate how structural racism impacts Black students’ achievement.

Starz is taking the investigation outside Oak Park via the "Real Talk" campaign, which includes screenings and panels featuring "America to Me" subjects and local organizational partners in 10 cities. 

James spoke to Colorlines about the series’ origin, execution and how he avoids the White gaze when depicting Black children.

Why did you choose to explore educational inequity in this way, in this school?

I’ve lived in Oak Park for a very long time and my kids came through the school system there. For years, I’ve been struck by how we live in this tremendously affluent community, as well as people living in single-family apartments so their kids can have a shot at a better education. It’s a diverse school in a very progressive community, yet for decades, the community has wrung its hands over its inability to address the [disparities] in performance between Black and White students. On some level, you’re like, “How is that possible given all that we have going on here?”

I’ve made films in the past about kids of color, particularly Black kids, who grew up in much more desperate circumstances. When schools fail in those communities, we know the reasons: they’re underfunded, kids wrestle with profound fears of violence, etc. But what was going on in Oak Park? That’s at the heart of this project.

I also wanted to profile the lives of kids who have certain advantages over, say, kids who live over the border on the West Side of Chicago, but still have to wrestle with systemic racism and microaggressions and all that’s present in communities this one. I feel that there hasn’t been enough attention from filmmakers like me on kids like them. Their lives and families matter, too.

How did you identify the students you profiled in “America to Me”?

I knew I wanted to find students in all four grades, who were represented within the school’s different educational tracks—because that makes a huge difference to the kind of education you get and how you perceive yourself within that environment. [The filmmaking team and I] wanted boys and girls and Black kids, but also kids who come from biracial families, because Oak Park is a magnet for those families in the area. We also wanted to have kids who were big personalities, kids who were shy—we wanted to get our hands around the varied experiences of students in that school.

Lastly, we weren’t just recruiting the kids. We met with the kids and their families because I knew that we’d want to understand the family environment behind each of these kids, and how their parents’ lives were shaped by race and racism. When you have all of those things on your checklist [laughs], that’s how you ultimately end up following 12 kids—we started with seven.

As a White filmmaker with projects that focus on racism and Black youth, how do you avoid applying the White gaze?

Going into communities of color that are very different from where I grew up, I couldn’t pretend to have the life experience that coincides with many of the stories I’ve told. It’s about understanding that wherever I’m going, I don’t know anything. I endeavor to tell stories through the eyes of the subjects I’m following. I also endeavor to do the time there—if you whisk in for a day or month, you’ll get a different [story] than if you spent a year in a place.

On this series, it was vitally important to tell this story creatively, and with a team of segment directors who each individually followed our kids’ stories: Kevin Shaw, Bing Liu and Rebecca Parrish. They put their own major imprint on the series. We also had multiracial producing and editing teams, so even though I get the director’s credit, it was a collaborative undertaking and wouldn’t be the project it is without that.