During the Charles Guggenheim Symposium at the AFI DOCS film festival here last week, Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips had a nice, 30-minute chat with filmmaker Steve James about his best-known documentaries.
These include 1994’s “Hoop Dreams,” about high school basketball; 2002’s “Stevie,” about a troubled childhood friend of James’s; 2014’s “Life Itself,” about the late Chicago film critic Rober Ebert; and 2016’s “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” about the only bank prosecuted out of the 2008 mortgage crisis.
Phillips called for the lights to come down and for the other part of the symposium to begin: a showing of the first episode of James’s new project: “America to Me,” a 10-hour documentary miniseries about a racially diverse U.S. high school.
James then stepped up to suggest that perhaps he should set up the screening a little.
“This is one I’ve been wanting to do for years,” James said at the June 14 event at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. “Oak Park is this very liberal, diverse suburb [of Chicago]. It sits right on the western edge. We live four blocks from the city line. It’s a very different world between four blocks to the east of us and Oak Park.”
The suburb of about 52,000 residents is “a community that takes enormous pride in its diversity and its liberalism,” James added. “The public schools are well-funded. For years I thought it would be great to do a film about what’s going on around race and education in a place like Oak Park, because there are issues there. You’d think that if any place could solve it, it would be Oak Park.”
James’ own children attended the 3,300-student Oak Park and River Forest High School, which is 54 percent white, 21 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, 9.5 percent multi-ethnic, and about 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, according to the school’s own figures.
James said because of sensitivities over racial achievement gaps at the school, administrators would never let him spend an entire year filming on campus.
“I was right about that until I found out [through series producer John Conde, a film and video teacher at the high school] that the school board would make the decision about whether we film or not, not the administration,” James said.
And so, in the first episode of “America to Me,” we see the school board voting to allow the production, which occurred during the 2015-16 academic year. The episode says that neither the superintendent of Oak Park-River Forest School District 200 nor the principal of the district’s lone high school agreed to be interviewed during that year.
(On its website, the school district explains that the school board approved the project because of “a renewed sense of urgency around addressing racial disparities in our school and community” and “the need for a more widespread discussion about these disparities.”)
James said that several film crews shot some 1,400 hours of footage, eventually focusing on 12 students. (This trailer is a preview created for the series’ premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.)
Not all 12 were introduced in the opening episode that was screened at AFI DOCS. The ones who were all were either African-American or biracial. James told me afterwards, though, that students of other races are among those focused on by the filmmakers.
The initial episode seemed to be largely about introducing the audience to Oak Park, to the high school, and to the themes of race and equity. One little fact that emerged: Students should not lose or forget their ID cards and lanyards at the large high school. Everyone is wearing one, and students get in trouble if they don’t.
The title of the series, which will appear on the Starz cable channel this fall, comes from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again":
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”
The first hour of “America to Me” comes across as beautifully shot and full of promise. If the full series is even half as good “Hoop Dreams,” which was about much more than just high school basketball, then America and education will be well served.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.