Starz Acquires New Edu-Documentary Series from ‘Hoop Dreams’ Director

By Mark Walsh — January 26, 2018 2 min read
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The Starz premiere cable channel has acquired a 10-part documentary series about education and race in a suburban Chicago high school from “Hoop Dreams” filmmaker Steve James.

Five of the 10 episodes of “America to Me,” filmed during the 2015-16 school year at Oak Park and River Forest High School in racially diverse Oak Park, Ill., premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week in Park City, Utah.

James, 63, released the three hour-plus “Hoop Dreams” in 1994 after following two inner-city basketball prospects through their high school years at private and public schools in the suburbs and the city. The film was about much more than just school basketball.

James is featured in a Friday report in The Washington Post from Sundance saying that “America and Me” is not “a story about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, or about violence,” but will showcase how the education system and the country are “failing minorities.”

The documentary exposes “a deep-seated racism that doesn’t necessarily manifest as overt racism,” James says in the report by the Post’s Steven Zeitchik.

The nearly 3,500-student Oak Park and River Forest High School is 54 percent white, 21 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, 9.5 percent multiethnic, and about 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. It is widely considered an academically successful high school, but one that has struggled to close a racial achievement gap.

Starz acquired “America to Me” early this week at Sundance, for a reported $5 million.

“We are thrilled to acquire this compelling docu-series from Participant Media and Steve James who, as a filmmaker, is truly one of the best,” Carmi Zlotnik, Starz’s president of programming, said in a news release.

The series will debut on the cable channel this fall.

“I am so excited to have found a distribution partner in Starz that shares the same dedication we have for this series and will help it finds its way into the world,” James said in a statement.

The portion of “America and Me” that premiered Jan. 22 was just one of several education-related documentaries and fictional feature films debuting at Sundance through Jan. 28. Others include “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a doc about the late public-TV early childhood educator Fred Rogers.; “Eighth Grade,” a fictional film about a middle school girl struggling to find her footing; and “The Kindergarten Teacher,” another fictional film, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as the teacher who discovers a 5-year-old poet prodigy in her classroom.

(Note/hint to my editors: Although recent knee surgery would have kept me from Sundance this year, I will be happy to clear my schedule next January if you absolutely insist that I go to the famous film festival.)

“America and Me” is the second documentary series this year following students in high school, although James did not place covert young adults as students at the Illinois high school, as the A&E channel’s series “Undercover High” has done.

That A&E series, filmed for one semester at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kan., has aired three of its 11 episodes. The shows have been a little slow-moving, but the undercover students, who were known to just three administrators, have provided some insights about how high school has changed even in the few short years since they attended for real.

Based on James’ track record with “Hoop Dreams” and other, non-education documentaries, such as “Life Itself” (about film critic Roger Ebert), I look forward to “America and Me” for some fresh perspectives and major insight about American education and race.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.