Documentary offers teen-level views on race issues in schools

High school cafeterias are often segregated, just like the rest of America. A new documentary series gives a look from teens’ perspectives.

Sometimes works of art reflect our own experiences; sometimes they reflect the country as a whole. The new documentary series America to Me seems to do both.

America to Me is a 10-part documentary series by filmmaker Steve James whose first five parts are now being shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of a full year in the lives of students, families, teachers and administrators at Oak Park and River Forest High School. OPRF is a school with an enrollment of about 3,200 students in a progressive Chicago suburb that is racially and socioeconomically diverse. The series follows multiple students—African American, Asian-American, Latino, white, biracial—and listens to the choices they make in their lives.

America to Me follows freshmen through seniors, from those just starting high school to those who have seemingly thrown in the proverbial towel. By all accounts from those who have watched the beginning parts of the series at Sundance, it’s a rich, poignant, and sometimes painful story. It doesn’t hold back on what has been called the “achievement gap” between black and white students and the struggle to find why it exists and what to do about it.

Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune saw the first parts at Sundance and reports back:

It’s an unusually revealing mosaic, depicting in heart-rending detail a full, teeming year in the lives of students, parents and educators in the Oak Park and River Forest High School community. …

There are some indelible portraits here, of struggling, striving, hopeful teenagers and of instructors and administrators up against obstacles they can see and hear, as well as more elusive matters of racial bias, ingrained prejudice, white privilege (“to name a phrase,” James said, “that only existed in academia and critical theory up until recently”) and opposing educational beliefs.

Oak Park also happens to be where I live, and OPRF is where our two daughters went to high school. If the documentary series is anything like our daughters’ experiences, it will be a 10-part series worth watching—and learning from.

If you attended a racially integrated school, or if your children did, you probably hoped that racial issues would be simple and noncontroversial. But in America, nothing is simple.

In grade school, our daughters had both white and black friends in class, Girl Scout troops, drama groups, T-ball teams, ice skating shows, etc. Our younger daughter, especially, spent a lot of time hanging out with an African American friend who lived a few blocks away and whose mother also became a good friend of mine. When that friend went to a different middle school, as the mother was worried about atmosphere and the lack of academic challenge, the two girls lost touch. The adults did, too.

Despite interracial friendships, our daughters freely admitted that, yes, the grade school cafeteria was segregated. There were definitely “black” tables. Why? No one knew.

By high school, friendships had solidified, yet there were opportunities for more. New relationships often depended on class projects, after-school activities, teams, church youth groups. There were interracial friendships and interracial dating, and some of those friendships remain to this day. Yet racial divisions were still prevalent. Another viewer of the series reported in Indiewire:

James’ documentary investigates each possible facet for the widening gap between races. His cameras go home with students to see what their home lives are like. They’re at football games and school dances. They’re on the bike ride to school and after-school assemblies. Such presence pays off in many moving portraits of the children themselves, be it Kendale McCoy, a senior who gets up every morning at 5 a.m. to cut weight for the wrestling team, or Ke’Shawn Kunsa Jr., a junior who feels like he’s destined to the same fate after school no matter what he does in it (so he doesn’t do much).

Then there’s Tiara Oliphant, who loves cheerleading but notices that the dance squad is mostly made up of white kids while her team is almost all black girls. (The dance squad requires more experience to get in, like expensive classes outside of school some students can’t afford.) Charles Donalson Jr. is pretty popular, but he admits in the first episode that, growing up, “I wanted my life to be like the white kids because their lives seemed so perfect compared to mine.”

The racial achievement gap is a problem that our community faces each year. Our two girls were in honors classes, and they had fewer African American kids in their classes. It’s a constant source of discussion among parents, teachers and administrators as to why.

And it’s a nationwide problem that really isn’t getting any better. A 2016 national report found that, despite a variety of approaches over the last 50 years, the achievement gap is still wide. U.S. News and World Report had a story about an analysis of that report, quoting Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, who wrote the analysis.

But 50 years later, that gap has barely narrowed, Hanushek’s analysis shows. The average 12th grade black student, according to data from the 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress, placed only in the 19th percentile. In reading, the achievement gap has improved slightly more than in math, but after a half century, the average black student scores at just the 22nd percentile. …

He estimates that if the achievement gaps continue close at such an incremental rate, it will be roughly two and a half centuries before the black-white math gap closes and over one and a half centuries until the reading gap closes.

Steve James

Steve James lives in Oak Park, and his own children graduated from OPRF, the last one in 2010 (which is a few years after our younger daughter graduated). He spent years seeking and finally obtaining permission to get nearly free rein at the school to follow his subjects in all aspects of their lives. He and his team shot about 1,300 hours of footage during the 2015-16 school year.

A local weekly paper, The Wednesday Journal, has covered James’s journey to make America to Me. “When I first presented this to the school board and we were trying to get permission to move forward, one of the points raised by a board member was, ‘How can you capture what goes on in this school in a single documentary?’ I agreed with that,” James said of his decision to turn the documentary into a multi-episode series instead of a single feature-length film.

James came to prominence with his 1994 documentary, Hoop Dreams, which told the story of two African-American teenagers dreaming of a professional basketball career and hoping that playing for a predominantly white suburban school would take them to the promised land of NBA stardom. As expected, their road wasn’t so simple.

Hoop Dreams won multiple awards from many film groups, including the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Sundance, a Peabody Award, a documentary directing award from the Directors Guild of America, and the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Non-Fiction Film.

Here is a preview of America to Me now being shown at Sundance:

James’s title for the series comes from a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” which The Advocate called “The Antidote to Trumpism.” It was quoted by Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and contains the repeated lines, “America never was America to me.”

O, yes, I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!

The full 10 parts of America to Me will air this fall on the Starz network (meaning—dang!—I will have to enhance my cable package or manage to get invited to someone’s house whose package includes it). According to The Wednesday Journal, Carmi Zlotni, president of programming for Starz, called the documentary series “extremely socially relevant and timely, which exemplifies our diversity strategy. Steve’s ability to bring the real and honest portrait of these students and the complex and compelling issues they face through this series is admirable.”

I can’t wait to watch it.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on Jan. 28, 2018.

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