America to Me, Steve James’s 10-part TV series about Oak Park and River Forest High School, feels at times less like a documentary about race and education than a fascinating conversation that you don’t want to end. “We didn’t just follow students around,” says the filmmaker and Oak Park resident. “We talked to them.” And as the students and teachers spoke to the camera and to each other — about race, certainly, but also about school dances, crushes, bad haircuts, and other everyday realities of being a teenager — the nation has started talking, too, on social media, in workplaces, and in classrooms, where many teachers screened episodes during the show’s early-fall run. Somehow, James transformed the daily doings of a suburban Chicago public school into an exegesis of who we are as a nation and how we’re raising and teaching our kids.
James, best known for 1994’s critically acclaimed Hoop Dreams and 2011’s The Interrupters, acknowledges that it is the universal rather than the particular that interests him. “Oak Park is not at all unique in struggling with issues of equity and education and race,” he says. “This is something that school systems are grappling with all over the country, and more and more will be as we go on.”
The topic of race surfaces and resurfaces in curious ways over the course of the series. And as the show progresses, it becomes clear that blackness is not under scrutiny so much as whiteness. James and his team are interested in exploring the uncomfortable place where well-meaning white people arrive at the cliff’s edge of their liberal sensibilities. Where, for example, a white physics teacher displays an affinity for Lauryn Hill but can’t resist commenting on a black female student’s natural hair. Where one white student remarks that “for some reason, the white kids try harder at school.” Where another confesses that he doesn’t have a single black friend. “The conversations around race and white privilege today have reached a new level,” says James. He brings viewers to the edge and invites them to take a leap.