America to Me feels very current, a perfect documentary series for right now. So, it’s amazing to consider that it began filming three years ago. Before the last presidential election. Before the “alt-right” received the spotlight as a movement and a term. Steve James, best known as the Oscar-nominated director of Hoop Dreams, also seems to have chosen the most appropriate high school for a story on race in this country, too. But it sort of just happens to be located in the Chicago suburb where he lives. It’s also where he sent his own kids.
Of course, Oak Park and River Forest High School has also been selected because, as James explains in a narrated history of Oak Park, Illinois, the location is a big deal. Situated just outside of Chicago and known for its liberal political leanings, the town is notable for its integration. Yet its esteem does not carry into the successes of its African-American students. The first episode of America to Me features a school board presentation on a substantial disparity between the academic progress of white and black children. Surely there are hundreds if not thousands of high schools in the U.S. experiencing the same issue, and OPRF represents this huge problem.
The major theme carried through in the series (five episodes of which were made available in advance for press) is the idea of racial equity. Rather than focusing on equality, which simply means that all people of all races are treated the same, the concept of racial equity recognizes that not every individual or group of people performs or expresses themselves in the same way or achieves as much with the same resources as everyone else. And clearly, the achievement gap issue shows that certain sets of students require different approaches in their education. As we see in America to Me, the making of which was not favored by much of the community or OPRF administration, solutions are far from determined let alone established.
The series, which includes segments co-directed by newly noteworthy filmmaker Bing Lui (Minding the Gap), introduces us to a number of African-American and biracial teenagers, of all grades, navigating the halls, the classes, sports, and other extracurricular activities as well as they are able — white student characters are also brought into the mix halfway into the series. These kids make America to Me so appealing, as youth and coming-of-age stories are always relatable and easy to empathize with. The students are definitely the stars of the show, and their dramas involving school (academic and athletic), family, friends, dating — all the usuals of high school tales — is naturally compelling. They would be enough to make the series watchable.
What makes America to Me excel beyond just being an observational portrait of American teens and high school life is its focus on the adults in these kids’ lives. The success of students depends on the work of their guardians and educators as much as, if not more so, the work of those attending OPRF. One of the more prominent characters throughout the series is a biracial English teacher who returns to the school after a year-long sabbatical spent partly in New Zealand learning about that country’s ideas on their own students’ racial divide. She hopes to implement some of these ideas at OPRF and work with other teachers on solutions to the issue of inequity, but she is met with opposition.
We don’t get to experience much of the oppositional voice in the series, because the OPRF principal and its district’s superintendent disapprove of the documentary filming and decline to be interviewed. And when the cameras are rolling in school board meetings, understandably (and as is addressed by a board member later in an interview) such powers, while not more agreeable, are subdued in showing their attitudes compared to normal. There are dynamics of differing positive approaches on display, however. A few interesting white staff members who make direct efforts with their black students include a deeply reverent Spoken Word coach and, in contrast, an often cringe-worthy physics teacher who tries too hard and feels entitled to do so, as he breaches the line of acceptable racial humor and discourse.
Parents in the greatest focus, as their own characters, include those of the biracial student subjects, the single moms, and the guardians in special circumstances, such as one woman with a son and a teenage sister who is under her care attending OPRF. Her narrative is primarily interested in her son’s potential, which she believes is greater than his performance. In addition to following these adults’ experiences through the school year, the series also uses the parents and teachers’ personal backgrounds to share multi-generational stories and historical contexts that enrich the viewers’ comprehension of America to Me as both a look at specific lives in Oak Park and an examination of life in this country as they pertain to racial identity and integration.
There are plenty of intriguing personalities and character arcs to look forward to as the series continues. One African-American boy attempts to balance two sets of friends — the group of white kids he hangs out with via marching band and the group of black kids he joins as a member of the wrestling team — each of which appeals to separate interests and a different part of his being. One of the biracial students immediately self-identifies in their first interview as non-binary in their gender expression, and while that trait doesn’t come up again in the series (at least not in the episodes I’ve had a chance to see so far) the character detail is a part of who they are and how they express themselves and may add to our empathic impression of them. Another student to pay attention to is an aspiring filmmaker working on her own documentary concerning race, which provides an extra level of text and additional insight to the series’ own coverage.
As with most of Steve James’ work (which also includes the films Life Itself, The Interrupters, and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature this year), America to Me is an important, essential, and inspiring program that penetrates as character study and sociopolitical problem film. Even just halfway into the series, we can appreciate what it’s doing and what it could do for its subject matter. And while the story of the kids in this single school year starts to become more comfortable as it goes on, we aren’t just engrossed in the familiar narratives but also trust that there’s a lot more to learn, ourselves, about the characters and the town of Oak Park and the nation as a whole when it comes to the subject of race in America.