The title of Steve James’s new documentary series, “America to Me,” comes from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again,” about the distance between the country’s idealistic vision of itself and the experiences of African Americans who never shared in it. The money verse:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
That passage describes the feeling of being both part of and apart from a great institution, one filled with extraordinary promise yet stymied by racial division. And that is the predicament black students face at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF), the suburban Chicago school chronicled in “America to Me.” Nestled in an affluent neighborhood west of the city, steps away from the home where Ernest Hemingway was born and several Frank Lloyd Wright structures, the 3,000-student OPRF is the type of public school that has families clamoring to live in the district. Test scores are high, the graduation rate is around 95 percent, and the extracurricular activities rival those at a small college. What’s more, it’s a model of diversity: 54 percent white students, 23 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 9 percent multiracial and 3 percent Asian.
Yet OPRF, like America itself, struggles to live up to its lofty aspirations, particularly in the wide achievement gap between white and black students. And that is what James — a longtime Oak Park resident and the director of acclaimed documentaries such as “Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters” and, most recently, the Oscar-nominated “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” — seeks to explore in “America to Me.” The 10-part Starz series premieres Sunday, following an acclaimed unveiling of its first five hours at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this series from the get-go was because it was not a poor Chicago public school with no resources, a besieged community, gang violence and all the things that we’ve seen,” James says, sitting down on a sweltering summer morning outside one of the elementary schools that feed into OPRF. “I’ve been in those situations filming-wise, and there’s been a lot of terrific films made about the education experience of kids in those situations. The reason to do this film is that we’re in a place like Oak Park that has the resources and apparently has the political will. Most of us are liberals here. We went 90 to 10 for Hillary [Clinton] in the last election. I felt like we could get at deeper-seated issues of race in education if you can eliminate those other variables, which are huge and meaningful but they’re not the whole story.”
Having sent all three of his now-adult children through OPRF, James had long fantasized about making a documentary about the school but never felt the idea was plausible, given the sensitivities involved in accessing students and classrooms and the suspicions of administrators wary of tarnishing the school’s image. When James brought up in the idea in a local newspaper profiling him for “Life Itself,” his documentary about the late Chicago film critic Roger Ebert, a media teacher at OPRF called him up. The school board eventually approved his project, reassured by his track record and his connections to the school.
“America to Me” covers the 2015-2016 school year, with a focus on the student experience. James and his creative team interviewed about 40 kids in the school library to find the initial five they would follow, but they picked up quite a few more as the year progressed. “We wanted to follow a diverse group of kids in every respect,” James says. “Black kids, biracial kids, white kids, different tracks within the school, different grade levels.”
One of those kids was Kendale McCoy, then a senior at OPRF and now heading into his junior year at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. In a school rife with academic and cultural barriers between white students and black students, McCoy makes for a special case, an African American who crosses over readily from one world to the next. He plays percussion in a predominantly white marching band and competes for the state-winning, predominantly black wrestling team. His buoyant personality makes him popular with both crowds. Yet fitting in is a skill he’s refined.
“I always had to make sure I had a smile on my face or that I didn’t have a negative attitude when I walked in the classroom,” McCoy says in an interview. “I knew that the first time I went off on a teacher or showed any kind of disrespect, I would be labeled as that kid with an attitude. That ‘black kid with an attitude.’ I think the documentary allowed me to be myself a lot more in the classroom because I knew the teachers weren’t going to make themselves look bad on camera. I no longer had to hide who I was.”
One major factor in the achievement gap between white and black students is the honors track, which has a disproportionate number of white students and feeds into the notion that OPRF is two schools under one roof. In the series and in person, McCoy’s mother, Pat Washington, talks about constantly advocating for her son to get the best education possible, enrolling him in Advanced Placement classes when necessary and spending money on tutors to keep his grades up.
Nathaniel L. Rouse, the school’s principal, says “America to Me” is an opportunity for self-assessment. “There are beautiful moments when we do right by our students and difficult moments when we don’t,” he says of the show, via email. “Our students are demanding racial equity . . . and they deserve it.”
He notes that race-based disparities start before high school but that there are factors OPRF can control: “Systemic racism, opportunity gaps, differences in expectations for them, the support they receive, who gets disciplinary consequences. All these factors show up in student performance.”
“America to Me” doesn’t suggest any easy answers, and James’s approach is sympathetic to students, teachers and board members working to make a difference. Yet the series is not a dry survey of education policy — it’s an urgent, inspiring and often heartbreaking look at teenagers who are playing for the highest of stakes. Much like “Hoop Dreams,” “America to Me” finds the drama in competition, such as McCoy pushing to cut his weight and help lead his team to the state championship, and other students’ devotion to cheerleading, baseball and spoken-word poetry slams. There is a white freshman who works herself into tears over imperfections in a straight-A report card and a black film student who documents her peers’ attitudes on racial identity.
But the school’s race-based disparity is not a topic everyone is keen to address. (Rouse and the district superintendent did not grant interviews for the series.)
“I think this is a community where people pay a lot of lip service to their ideals,” James says. “That’s maybe a little harsh. People want to be right and feel good about how they engage around race and diversity, but it doesn’t extend to making more-dramatic changes. Especially if you’re a white parent, there’s a fundamental belief that the school is working great for [your] kids. [You] would really like those black kids to do better, but there’s a false perception that if you make changes it would somehow affect the education for your kids.” In the series, some proposals for closing the achievement gap are sidelined — in part because of this fear of changes, James says.
These problems are not specific to OPRF. “Racial discrimination and disparity is equal across the board,” Washington, McCoy’s mother, says in an interview. “Whether you’re coming from a Chicago public school that’s in poverty or you’re coming from a suburban school like OPRF that has all the resources, you think, ‘Why are the majority of black kids at a disadvantage?’ That’s the big question.”
America to Me (60 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Starz.
Correction: This story initially had the incorrect premiere time.