One of Steve James’ favorite moments in his latest project “America to Me” is actually when someone is explaining how he thinks it might turn out. James had been following students at Oak Park and River Forest High in Chicago for a few months when Kendale, one of his central subjects, and his friends were singing songs from “The Lion King” at a reasonable level at lunch, only to be sternly warned by a security guard to cut it out when the Drumline member started playfully pounding on the table. It’s obvious the kids, mostly African-American (and then again the guard as well), are used to this, to the extent that Kendale’s friend Gabe, noting the presence of the camera suggests that based on these few bars of “Hakuna Matata,” the film will surely open “with kids doing drugs behind the school and then get into the achievement gap [between white and black students] that’s as wide as Kendale’s body.”
“Kids have an understanding too of the way they have been portrayed in media and a sophistication about that, which I think informs their sophistication in general,” says James, who was continually delighted by such moments of self-awareness. “And it’s one of the reasons why we included those kinds of moments in the film series because we felt like that is part of who they are and how they relate to the world.”
Indeed, there are surely plenty of other filmmakers who would’ve made the film Gabe described, but James was never going to be one of them, finding greater power in nuance than sensationalism to go by such past films as “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters.” While never lacking ambition to delve deeply into issues of race and class over time to the point where ideological trappings fall away to truly experience life in someone else’s shoes, James didn’t have the luxury of the kind of longitudinal filmmaking he’s used to doing with “America to Me,” limited to a single year in the lives of 12 students at Oak Park and River Forest High. Yet in his first series — 10 individual hour-long episodes that will air on Starz, beginning this Sunday — James challenges himself in an entirely different way, covering a campus 3400-strong to find all the small but significant ways that African-American students can be marginalized systemically, even when the system is devised with good intentions.
A native of Oak Park, James was well-aware of the uneasy mix between the white and black communities that has never entirely coalesced generations after housing ordinances that made it possible for African-American families to move into the area — and leading white conservatives to flee — leaving behind white progressives who welcomed their new neighbors with open arms. Yet even if that feeling extends to the area’s high school, which is well-funded and open to alternative educational styles — classes include spoken word poetry and “Chemistry in the Community,” and it isn’t unusual for teachers to engage students in frank conversations about race, sitting around cross-legged in circles — statistically, white students have gradually seen a rise in measures of their improvement while African-American students have remained stagnant and by virtue of being around every day, “America to Me” captures how there seems to be a different set of expectations for one group of students than another.
James, along with segment directors Bing Liu, Rebecca Parrish and Kevin Shaw, are sympathetic to the demands on the school where every student has individually specific needs, but also show how different standards, unconsciously created or not, have put students of different color on different footing that will follow them into adulthood, shaping their outlook of themselves and how they will be treated in the world even if it doesn’t feel like their education has been affected. Even as “America to Me” tells this difficult larger story, it is as richly entertaining as any of James’ other films have been, hitting all the teenage rites of passage such as football season and prom, introducing a variety of inspiring teachers and students who constantly surprise with their abilities and aspirations and finding great drama on a week-to-week basis in whether the 220-lb. Kendale will lose enough weight to be able to compete on the Varsity wrestling squad. Shortly before the series premieres on Starz, James spoke about the unusual path “America to Me” took to get to the screen and working within the confines of a school that didn’t necessarily want to let his cameras in, as well as covering a school of this size and finding the right students to follow.
I read this came about after you had mentioned in an interview you were interested in doing something on Oak Park and some people from the community approached you about it – what was it like to find out there was mutual interest in a project like this?
Well, the school administration was not interested. [laughs] People in the school were. When we were in this process that would ultimately result in the school board approving us to go forward, myself and the series producer John Condne, who is also a teacher there, arranged for a number of conversations with various people. We talked to some black teachers and some white teachers and even some administrators, really trying to get a handle on what was really going on in the school and try to make this happen. We did get some cooperation in that regard, but formally, the administration did not want this to happen and was public about at school board meetings. Fortunately, the school board itself, which is made up of community members and mostly parents with kids that are in the school system, were willing to shake things up and allow us in to make this series and hold a mirror up to the community and the school over the objections of their administration. They were empowered to do that, which was lucky for me.
You mention in the first episode that your own kids attended the school in the past. Was your own familiarity a guide for what you’d look for at the school?
I had some familiarity with the school from living in the community all those years, but the funny thing about high school, and I think this is true of most schools around the country, is that schools are very encouraging of parents’ involvement at the grammar school level, but starting at junior high, there’s a clear but unmistakable message that the school is not as interested and by the time you get to high school, I think most parents feel like they don’t know how to engage with the school, outside of very confined ways in which they’re invited in, like parent/teacher night or attend plays and sporting events. There are ways for them to be involved, but I think most parents feel intimidated, especially at a school as big as Oak Park-River Forest, which is 3400 students, so while I knew certain things from the varied experiences our three kids had going through there, there were so much I had no idea really about. Much like any documentary I do, it was an act of discovery in the most profound ways.
In the fifth episode, you see a little bit of the intake interviews you conducted during casting where both the students and their parents are there – I imagine that might’ve been a protective measure for the parents, but did you learn anything from seeing them together?
Absolutely. We wanted the kids to show up with both parents [to those interviews], if possible, or at least one parent because it was really important I felt to get a sense of the dynamic of the family itself because I knew that we were not going to just tell the story of the kids within school because I feel to really understand the way in which race plays out in American life and in the lives of these young people, you also have to include their families as well, so we really were recruiting both. These intake interviews were absolutely geared towards having frank discussions about race and education and their experiences within the school and we certainly were observant to the ways in which when certain questions were asked and how both the parents and the kids engaged over it. It was necessary to be able to not dance around those questions because we needed to understand in fairly short order what was going on in these kids’ and these families’ lives as it related to race, the community and the school to try and make decisions about who to follow.
Was there anything specific you were looking for?
We were trying to check off certain boxes in the casting to try and get our arms around the variety of students in a school setting. We wanted to make sure that we had a good representation of biracial students because that is how America looks these days and Oak Park is a particular magnet for biracial families, well more than the national average, and [various] family situations – single parent families as well as intact families, blended families, unusual parental situations. We wanted to make sure that we had kids that represented the different grade levels and the educational tracks. We wanted kids with interest in sports and the arts. We wanted kids that were not joiners as well as kids who were joiners. We wanted kids with big personalities and kids who were more shy and reserved. Plus, you want to feel a real connection with kids, so that’s how you end up with what we ended up with, which is we started with seven kids, but ended up with a dozen by the end of the series.
I think that this generation is really different in some significant ways, and this is all anecdotal based on what I’ve observed at large going on in America as well as in making the series, not based on studies. This generation is, I think, is very attuned to the world that we’re living in right now and as it relates to issues of race, they’re especially plugged in, particularly students of color, but many white students too.
In a place like Oak Park, there is a lot of discussion in the classrooms on these issues and social emotional learning as a form of education has gained real credence, so that it’s not just education focused on facts and formulas – all these enduring things that have defined education for years – but in engaging kids in the lives they’re living. All of that contributes to a heightened awareness and sophistication and because our social media and the fact that cameras are everywhere literally, in everybody’s pocket, there is a kind of level of sophistication about media and representation that this generation has that is new.
How’d you put together a production team to cover as much ground as you do, both physically and otherwise?
That was something that I made a promise to the school board in the process of getting permission. They knew that I was a longterm resident of the community, which gave them some comfort, and they knew enough of my work [to know] I was not just going to come in and try to do an expose or a hatchet job – that was talked about very overtly in conversations with the school board. I wanted to show what was working as well as what wasn’t working about the school and I think we absolutely did that. But the question of me as a white filmmaker telling these stories was something we discussed very clearly and openly and I made it clear to them that I had every intention of bringing in a team of filmmakers to help follow these stories that would be both racially diverse and age diverse because it was vitally important that we had young filmmakers, filmmakers of color and a woman filmmaker in the mix.
That was one of the best decisions, if not the single best decision I made in the course of making the series because each of them – Kevin [Shaw], Rebecca [Parrish] and Bing – did phenomenal work. This series just could not happen without their contribution, which is why I wanted to give them the credit that they so richly deserved as segment directors. Then of course, we had a diverse producing team and a diverse editing team as well. This was a hugely collaborative undertaking… [laughs] And a necessity to do what we did on this epic scale and as intensively as we did it.
It was very exciting. It was also quite daunting. Each of us were shooter/directors in this process because I wanted the crews to be small and intimate, so I wanted directors who were the ones with the camera on our shoulders out there. But that was hugely challenging. We shot about 1400 hours of material, spread across the four of us, and I figured out at some point the number of hours that we shot averaged out to longer than a school day every day. Then of course when we got into editing, that was a whole other level of challenge [because] now you have stories of 12 kids, of teachers, of school board meetings and community meetings and administrators against their will, so to speak, sporting events and homecoming, prom. [laughs]. [So it became a question of] how do we then shape that into what we hope will be a compelling series that pulls you from episode to episode. One of the great challenges of a series like this is we’re not following a single narrative story here. We’re following a lot of stories and we don’t have the kind of building cliffhangers of doing a story about a murder, let’s say, so it’s both a daunting challenge, but also an exhilarating one because [it felt like] anything goes within the confines of the unfolding school year and [there were] certain things we had to honor.
I had the most amazing editing team on this series. I was one of the editors and two of my key editing colleagues I’ve worked with in the past are extremely talented – Leslie Simmer and David E. Simpson, and we also brought in Alanna Schmelter and Rubin Daniels, some younger associate editors who not only brought some real editing skills, but also a perspective as young people because David and I are not so young anymore. [laughs] Despite all the collaborators I had, this is the hardest thing I have ever had to make because of the intensity and the demands and the sheer volume and the complexity of what we were doing, but I feel quite proud of the final product and it quite simply could not be done without some immensely talented collaborators.
We showed the first two episodes at the Cineplex in Oak Park, and I watched the first two episodes play in festival environments, starting with Sundance and I know that they play well for an audience. They move fast, they’re entertaining, they’re provocative. The kids are really interesting. But I was very curious about how people would view some of the more critical aspects that emerge in those first two episodes and I can only report the people who spoke up in the screening, but I was encouraged by their response. [For] just about all of them, the first thing they said when they got up [during the Q & A] was that they were really happy that this had been made, that we were shining a light on some very difficult issues in the community and [they] appreciated the kids’ sharing their stories [before] they went on to ask their questions. So my hope is that the community will appreciate the ways in which we show how the school is doing some really great things and has some really great teachers, but also that they will look at the underlying critique of where we’re falling short — and not just at Oak Park but elsewhere — and take that to heart. [We don’t want audiences to] just look at this as provocative entertainment, but as a means to engage more fully in these issues, especially members of the white community for whom the school works pretty well [already], and say we need to do more for our students of color to bring true equity to the school system and to the community as a whole.