Very rarely does a docu-series cover topics of racial injustice, poverty and segregation all within the first 10 minutes of the first episode. Steve James has decided to do just that with his new eye-opening documentary series on Starz, America to Me.
As the director of previous films like Hoop Dreams, where he followed two African American high school basketball players, James continues to engage in a narrative based around the context of race and its impact on high school students. Centering the docu-series on Oak Park and River Forest (O.P.R.F.) High School in suburban Chicago, America to Me allows us to get a candid take on what it’s like being a Black student in a predominantly white school in a middle class neighborhood.
One of the most interesting concepts that develops early in the series is the double meaning the word “liberal” has. At O.P.R.F., a school known for being resistant to segregation and “separate but equal” ideologies, it is stated that many Black parents send their children to said school because of hoping that it will give their children a better opportunity for success than schools in the inner cities. While many of O.P.R.F.’s faculty and staff preach a message of diversity and inclusion, America to Me proves that O.P.R.F. struggles with the same issues that plague the entire educational system—issues that are built on the long histories of oppression and marginalization that Black students have always faced.
The show is quick to highlight how uncomfortable race conversations can be, noting that while 40 students asked to participate in the film, only 12 of the 40 agreed to on screen interviews. Seven of which are African American and three are biracial. Only two of the participants are white, with it being noted that the producers had a very hard time getting white individuals to participate in the project.
In order to understand what this docuseries is trying to convey, one has to look at the stats that make up the school’s population. Of 3,370 students, 54 percent are white, 23 percent are Black, 11 percent are Hispanic, 9 percent identify as multiracial and 3 percent are Asian.
Knowing this, James leads the docu-series by addressing the notion that many of the problems we see at O.P.R.F. are related to the racial makeup and the lack of care and resources minoritized students have throughout their journey. Though the school likes to sell itself as being one of the most liberal schools in Chicago, it and the school district has struggled with the achievement between white and Black students, specifically noting that the gap has grown wider in the last 12 years.
As we are introduced those being interviewed, we learn quickly that these students are aware of injustices happening both inside and outside of the school. Many of the students interviewed shared that they are aware of the racial disparities happening in O.P.R.F. and wish that administration were working to remedy them.
These feelings are quickly vindicated by a revelation James uncovers in America to Me’s first episode: many of O.P.R.F.’s Black students find themselves on different educational tracks, in different classes with different outcomes. This phenomenon is so commonplace that one educators makes remarks that being at the school is like “two experiences in one”. This commentary, paired with James’ clear evidence, proves that even “liberal” education systems are still rooted in concepts and practices reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.
In addition to these understandings of history and inequity, America to Me also concerns itself with respecting the agency of Black youth while giving them a platform so that they can speak truth to power. As the show progresses, we are introduced to several young, talented Black children who are not only overcoming the racial divide in their schools, but learning how to survive and maintain in a system that is not set up for them to excel.
Charles Donalson, a young Black man who uses poetry as an escape, stated that his favorite thing about being a part of this documentary was that it shows Black kids being kids, in a time where many Black youth don’t get a chance to enjoy their youth for long. Tiara Oliphant and Jada Buford, two young Black women who are also heavily involved in extracurriculars in their school, show us the struggles that young Black women face in relation to the perceptions that society puts on them and the pressures they have to excel in systems that sees them as expendable.
While the show spends much of its time highlighting the racial tension that lives within our educational spaces, America to Me also reminds us that our youth are watching with a keen eye and learning more about what it means to be Black in America than what we put in front of them in the classroom. The series shines light on very timely topic of how racism and implicit bias not only makes it hard for Black students to learn, but to have agency within the confounds of the classroom.
So far, the first two episodes has highlighted a much needed conversation around what it means to be a young Black person who wants to be their authentic self in spaces where they are being taught how to tuck their true selves away. It is in fact a much needed, candid conversation on what Black children need from educators and what we can do to help them succeed. This doc-series is in fact a good lecture on the historical and national failures of educational inclusion, access equity, and the work all educators must do to make sure that all students have the same opportunity to not just survive, but thrive in spite of the odds against them..
America to Me airs Sundays on Starz.