Why America to Me Director Steve James Made a Show About My High School

Photo: Starz Entertainment, LLC

Oak Park and River Forest High School is an odd place. I speak from experience: I spent the first 18 years of my life in Oak Park — a Chicago suburb so supposedly liberal, it’s sometimes called the People’s Republic of Oak Park — and attended its 3,000-ish-person public school, Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF), from 2000 to 2004. Throughout my youth, I saw firsthand how the town and the school wrangle with issues of race. Decades ago, Oak Park’s town leaders made a point of preventing white flight and redlining in an effort to create a rarity for the Chicago suburbs: an integrated community of black and white people. However, the experiment hasn’t always gone as planned. Oak Park remains socially self-segregated and there’s a substantial achievement gap between white and black students at the high school.

That set of thorny dilemmas is at the core of America to Me, a new Starz documentary series created and helmed by longtime doc director (and Oak Park resident) Steve James. It follows an assortment of students, most of them black or biracial, as they navigate life as teenagers in a fraught but promising burg. I met up with James to talk about how teenagers have changed since his breakthrough 1994 feature Hoop Dreams, what he thinks can be done about racial fissures in America’s schools, and the importance of building an inclusive team of filmmakers.

I have to say, watching the series was a shock for me because I barely recognized the school these kids attend. Part of that is because it’s changed in the 14 years since I graduated, but I’m sure that a lot of my surprise was due to the fact that I’m white and the OPRF experience is radically different for black kids. What surprised you the most while shooting and editing the series?
First and foremost, I was surprised by the kids themselves. I have kids who are older than these kids. My kids are long gone from the school, and I haven’t, for a long time, filmed with teenagers. Not since Hoop Dreams. So I was really struck by how incredibly aware and thoughtful and engaged in the world these kids were. I was nothing like that as a teenager. There’s been a real shift in the last few years of what the kids seem focused on, what they want to talk about. It used to be more celebrities, and now it’s more like, What the fuck’s going on with the world? Of course, that’s great to see, because it’s kids like the kids in this series that go off and lead change in this country.

I should hope, yeah.
When my oldest son was in the marching band his freshman year, which would have been 2002, I went to football games basically to watch the halftime show. I had never been to an OPRF football game. They sucked back then.

I’m very aware, yes.
I was struck then by the way the crowd laid out. There were black parents mostly at one end of the stadium, white parents in the middle, and then the student section down there. I was struck by the fact that most of the cheerleaders were African-American, the drill team was overwhelmingly white, and they both performed. That had not changed in any way, shape, or form from 2002 to 2015, when we filmed. It just seems like such an obvious racial thing that made me very curious.

It’s funny that you mention that, because the cheerleader/drill team racial divide fascinated me while I was at OPRF. The school paper would do an Onion-style satire issue every April Fool’s Day, and one year, someone wrote a headline that read, “Superintendent Reinforces ‘Separate but Equal’ Policy for Cheerleaders, Drill Team.”
That’s great.

The student who wrote it got in so much trouble.
That’s perfect Oak Park! That headline is making a very, very sharp and acute observation about race. And who gets in trouble for it? The kid who made the observation. It wasn’t like, Yeah, what is going on here? It’s like you’ve been insensitive. That’s one of the problems in Oak Park. Again, it didn’t surprise me because I’ve lived there for so long, but to see it in practice was to see how careful people are and unwilling to really speak candidly or act decisively around these issues to make change.

I don’t know how far you’ve gotten in the series.

Seven episodes.
All right, you’ve done good. You’re gonna keep watching, right?

Of course. It’s required viewing for all Oak Parkers.
In episode ten, there’s a pretty frank appraisal of the lack of leadership in the school that comes from teachers and a retired principal and the board member who’s the most outspoken, Jackie. She’s a star board member, in my view. It was hard to see what a lack of leadership that school had in the year we filmed, and I think it has had over the years, when it comes to issues of equity and change. Because there is this feeling that the school really works well for white families, for the most part.

Astoundingly well, in fact.
It’s a great school. If you have designs on Ivy League or high-end college institutions, having OPRF on your transcript and having done well at OPRF, that’s a good thing. And because it works so well for the white community, real change is hard. Especially when so many white people feel like, I’m living in Oak Park and my kids are going to a very diverse high school and I believe in equity, and that somehow is enough.

If you’re white and your kid is doing well, you probably just think, My tax dollars are going toward the school, so I’ve done my duty.
Yeah, and thinking, It’s a well-funded school so they must be doing all they can do. And they’re not! There’s a scene in episode ten where [two teachers] finally have an equity meeting with teachers that they’ve been trying to organize. It’s a really instructive scene because there’s some really good, frank talk among the teachers about what they’re trying to deal with in the classroom. One of the stories that comes out is, at one point, they had this “clustering” idea, where they actually put in practice clustering of African-American kids in the higher tracks to try to give them more of a level of comfort instead of feeling like the only black kid in the class. There was outrage in the white community over it, because they felt like their kids were not getting the benefit of having a black kid in their class. What was that benefit exactly, one must ask, other than to say, I have a black kid in my class?

Exactly. I went off to college and was very smug about the fact that I went to a diverse school, but I really learned very little about race while I was there. I was talking about the series with a fellow former theater geek from Oak Park and we were remembering how this one drama teacher would do a play every year where she’d actively try to get black kids to audition, and we always looked down on those plays like they weren’t “real,” in some way.
Like they’re affirmative-action plays.

We were so ashamed that we used to think that way, but there it is. Now I look back at that teacher and really admire her for what she was doing.
Yeah, equality is not the same thing as equity. And if your focus is on equality, which I think is too often the case in Oak Park, it’s like, Well, let’s keep things equal, and then that’s doing the right thing. No, that’s not doing the right thing. That’s not gonna change anything.

How has the school changed in the past decade and a half?
I don’t know how much the school has changed because I didn’t spend a lot of time in the school when my kids were there. That’s partly on me, but it’s also because — and it’s not just true of Oak Park — the educational system in this country, they encourage parents to be involved in grammar school, but as kids get into junior high and then into high school, parent involvement in school is pretty much discouraged. They don’t want you sticking your nose into their business. I think that’s true across the board in American education.

Have you done screenings in Oak Park yet?
We screened the first two episodes at the Lake Theater, their biggest movie theater, and it was full. And we had a panel discussion afterward that was organized by the school. I was on the panel and a couple of students in the film that are now seniors were on the panel as well. In the room, the episodes play well. When it became clear in episode one that the administration was not cooperating or not participating at all, there were some gasps in the audience because they had just heard the principal speak at the beginning of the screening, talking about all the good work the school is doing. And [the audience] were like, What?

I hope [Oak Parkers] will really be struck by some of the realities of experiences that students have and some of the failures of the administration. In a later episode, we dig in on the lack of black teachers and the feeling of lack of empowerment that black teachers in the school feel, for example. I’m hoping this will be more of a wake-up call for the community. I don’t want them to just watch it and go, Oh it’s a great school and we just need to tweak a few things and everything will be fine, because I don’t think that’s what’s called for. I think there’s a lot more called for.

What is called for?
Well, I’m not an expert on this. I can’t give you programs and all of that. But I think on a broad level, white people have to decide that they really care enough about this issue to want real change to happen, and see that it’s in their interest for there to be real change. That might mean taking a hard look at the tracking system in the school, for example. That’s scary to white parents of high-flying students, because they’re thinking, What’s that gonna mean to my kid’s education?

They think it’s gonna slow down the class.
It’s gonna slow down the class. It’s gonna hurt my kid. I’m all for equity, but not at the expense of my kid. I think it’s gonna take some courage. One of the things I was really struck by — and we deal with it in episode eight, which is the culmination of the whole wrestling story — you’ll see a version of what we did with the football game in episode three with the other schools’ racial taunting.

The racial taunts were very hard to watch in that episode.
And I’m thinking, They’re in a district that has a lot of virtually all-white schools, they’re playing against football teams that are just about entirely white, and there’s racial taunting going on? When the OPRF coach complains to their coaches about it, they say, Your kids started it. Like, what? What did they call them? A cracker? Such bullshit. The fact that there was racial taunting going on in this day and age at a football game and it hasn’t been dealt with is ridiculous. What you’ll find in episode eight is that the wrestling team, which is virtually all black and Latino, there is tremendous resentment towards the school’s success in the larger state wrestling community. And it’s all about race. It’s all about race.

I mean, it’s America. Everything’s about race.
Yeah. It would be like if suddenly the U.S. swim team at the Olympics was all African-Americans. People would be like, Wait, what’s going on here?

That’s the reactionary thinking across the board in America right now, right? Complaining about demographic change.
When the Oak Park football team sucked all those years, there wasn’t a lot of racial taunting because they weren’t a threat. These other teams would come into town and kick their butts and go home and probably go, We showed them. There wasn’t racial taunting. It’s only because the team is good now that the racial taunting has been ratcheted up.

“You will not replace us.”
Or, “We’re not going down without a fight.”

What distinguished the teachers who actually were making progress? What do you think those teachers are doing that works?
I think that where it works — it’s not always teachers of color, but frequently it is — they bring a clear sensitivity and understanding of what the kids of color are going through in their classrooms and more of a commitment to impacting their lives. I think that’s true of Jess [a teacher featured in the series]. Even though Jess is biracial and, as she says, she grew up white, I think she has made a commitment to this work and it comes through loud and clear. It’s true of Paul Noble, too.

Paul Noble is the only teacher in the show who I knew pretty well. He directed me in a play, but I had no idea what he was like in the classroom.
Paul is a great example of a white teacher who does not think he knows it all, at all, and really tries to listen to the kids and meet them on their own terms and help them, but still hold them accountable. It’s not about saying, Because you grew up in America and maybe you’re in a single-parent situation and I think you’re struggling, I’m gonna give you a break. That’s not how to do it. It’s understanding those realities and finding a way to reach that kid and have them do what they need to do.

Not to put you on the spot, but did you have a lot of people of color on your staff?
Yes. I’m glad you asked that. It’s really important to me that you put this in your article. When I pitched this to the school board, I told them that I was not going to be the sole creative person. You never are, but this wasn’t going to be just Steve James coming in and filming the story. First of all, that’s not practical to just be one person. But secondly, I made a commitment to them — which was important to them, too — that we were going to have a truly multiracial creative team. The segment directors — who are real directors, it’s not just a title that I gave them — they earned it. Each of us, the three segment directors and myself, we each ultimately ended up following three kids each throughout the year. That team was made up of Kevin Shaw, who is an African-American filmmaker; Bing Liu, who made the film Minding the Gap, which is maybe the documentary of the year, in my humble opinion; and Rebecca Parrish, who’s a white filmmaker in her 30s and really talented. To me, it was important that it be multiracial, multi-gender, and that I work with younger filmmakers who — because we’re dealing with high-schoolers — are not so far removed from that experience as I am. It also extended to the edit team, extended to the producing team as well. Not for window-dressing reasons at all. It was vital to telling the story that we have that team in place.

How have teenagers changed in the 25 years since you made Hoop Dreams?
The level of awareness and sophistication around these issues of race and what’s going on in the world is considerably stronger today than when I was a kid, even though I was a kid in the ’60s, but also when I was doing Hoop Dreams. Another change is that — and this may seem a bit of a paradox because we live in an age of social media and a feeling that people overshare about their lives — but I think that’s started to change in the last couple of years.

Kids who are college-bound and are thinking about their adult lives, they think about the fact that whatever they put out there is gonna be out there. I think kids have become more conscious that this is gonna live forever. A lot of our kids, even though social life for this generation of teenagers is a different thing in terms of dating and all that, they weren’t too keen on having us be in that part of their lives. We don’t go to parties and see kids drunk on their ass. Kids didn’t want us in those situations, and frankly, it’s not what this series is about. There’s plenty of teen accounts of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, or whatever. This is not what this series is about. But kids were also very conscious of that.

I think there’s a self-awareness around that and wanting to be clear about boundaries that kids speak up about more now. They feel more empowered to say, This is fine, that is not fine. Years ago, teenagers being filmed was a more unique experience, and they would probably assert themselves less in that regard. But we live in a time now where being filmed in some fashion is an everyday thing. Everybody’s got a camera. And the kids’ interaction with us in those ways is interesting, too — they engage the camera. They get the media landscape and are sophisticated about it. They see how they might fit into this.

What are the ethics of filming a minor? Do you think about that differently than filming somebody who’s of age?
Yeah, it’s one of the reasons why I have purposefully focused the filming I’ve done on high-schoolers, not grammar-school kids. It becomes much more fraught the younger the kid is, because they’re not in positions of really understanding what we’re doing here. Having the parents onboard, obviously, is key. But also, it’s important that kids be given a sense of agency in this process. And that’s true with all subjects. I think the responsibility might be even greater with kids. That’s something I’ve felt strongly about from the get-go, and I feel like I’ve learned over the years more why that’s important. It’s important for any of your subjects — and the kids, especially, in this case — to feel like they do have some control over what we’re doing here. That they’re not just agreeing to opening up their lives completely or they’re violating our agreement somehow, you know what I mean?

We also take very seriously how we portray them ultimately in the series. We want it to be candid and honest, but we always want it to be empathic. I don’t want people sitting in judgment of people in films. People are inclined to do that; it’s human nature. But I am very conscious, in the construction of all films I’ve done over the years, to try and thwart easy judgment.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Why Steve James Made a TV Show About My High School