Filmmaker Steve James tackles thorny issue of race in suburban school
When you see a Steve James documentary, you often come away with a sense of that ethereally elusive entity called understanding.
That happened with his critically acclaimed 1994 doc "Hoop Dreams," about two black Chicago teens with hopes of becoming professional basketball players.
And it happens in "America to Me," James' newest nonfiction work, an examination of race, education, equality and politics at Oak Park and River Forest High School. The docuseries begins the first of 10 one-hour episodes at 9 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 26, on Starz.
"When you look at institutions that are supposed to be the best, and look at where they fail, you get a deeper understanding of where we're failing as a whole, everywhere," James said in a telephone interview.
James and three segment directors spent the 2015-16 academic year embedded inside the high school to follow 12 students in what appears to be a challenging, model educational environment for a highly diverse student body.
The teachers and staff come off committed and caring. The school suffers from no shortage of resources or amenities.
Yet, as test scores for white kids consistently climb, test scores for black students remain constant.
The cheerleading squad is black. The dance squad is white -- and seems to rate higher on the status ladder.
In the series, the predominantly white school board doesn't seem quite as fired up to address the disparity as some of the black faculty and staff.
"If you look at a bad school, what's wrong there is fairly obvious," James said. "If you look at Oak Park, it's not so obvious. But it's nonetheless real."
In the first episode, a black teen confesses he envied white students because he thought they lived better lives. Another black student expresses her discomfort that a white student is working way too hard to relate to her.
"What I hope people take away is a much more complete and full understanding of some of the deeper systematic issues of race in this country," James said, "even in liberal communities like Oak Park. Even in well-funded school systems like Oak Park's."
James conceded that many "terrific" documentaries have already been made that look at the experience of inner-city public schools lacking in funds and resources, often times with students forced to live with violence as a part of their daily lives.
Looking at a school like Oak Park and River Forest brings the race discussion squarely into the suburbs.
James' crew, including segment director Bing Lui (director of the just-released Rockford documentary "Minding the Gap"), received a thumbs-up from the school board to shoot the movie despite concerns from some teachers and administrators.
"To a remarkable extent, I had pretty great access," James reported. "It was a big enough school that we could operate without administrators tailing us to see what we were up to. We did a pretty good job of getting what we needed to get to tell the story."
Yet, James admitted his documentary is missing a key component: He couldn't persuade the administration to be interviewed on camera.
"That was a big loss," he said.
In a letter published on the school's website, Superintendent Dr. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said the series has generated "a lot of excitement, curiosity, and discussion throughout our community."
"Wherever I go, people ask if I've seen the documentary and what I think of it," she wrote. "Having seen all the episodes, I can tell you that there are many powerful, affecting moments when you'll see the amazing teaching and learning that happens here every day. And, as you'd expect, there also are difficult moments, when we aren't serving some of our students as we should. OPRF isn't unique, of course. Schools throughout the United States are grappling with inequities that create racially predictable disparities in student outcomes. But we are intensely focused on eliminating these differences."
James said "America to Me" transcends the often divisive elements of race and inequity.
"It's about so many other things that define what it's like being a teenager in this country that don't have to do with race," James said.
"It's also about first love. It's about a kid who's been on the wrestling team for four years and never started, and he has to lose 40 pounds if he has a hope of starting. It's about going to prom. Going to the football game."
The Oak Park resident, 64, is best known for "Hoop Dreams," named Best Picture of 1994 by the Chicago Film Critics, even though Academy Award voters failed to nominate it for a Best Documentary Oscar. (It received an editing nomination.)
But James has also created an impressive cultural treasure trove of nonfiction films -- most under the auspices of Chicago's Kartemquin production house -- including 2011's street doc "The Interrupters," 2014's candid profile of Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, "Life Itself," and 2015's "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail," which earned James a Best Documentary Oscar nomination.
The director said he hopes that audiences watch the entire "America to Me" series to fully absorb the experience.
"I want viewers to really embrace these kids' lives and pull for them, the way they pulled for the kids in 'Hoop Dreams,'" he said.
The series' title comes from black writer Langston Hughes' poem, "Let America Be America Again." It contains the line, "America never was America to me."
"Just because you live in suburban America," James said, "if you're black or biracial, it doesn't mean everything's cool."