Starz Documentary Subjects Challenge Critics: “This Ain’t Scripted” – TCA

Starz stirred the pot with its TCA panel devoted to the network’s first two documentary series, America to Me and Warriors of Liberty City.

Subjects of both shows — a recent high school graduate named Charles Donalson III and former rapper turned football coach and community activist Luther Campbell — issued pointed challenges to the critics and reporters in the ballroom.

Donalson, one of subjects of America, the portrayal of a year in the life of a suburban Chicago high school by filmmaker Steve James, who memorably tackled similar territory in Hoop Dreams. Challenging the media to step outside of TCA press tour’s cosseted, buffets-and-screeners bubble, Donalson urged them to look more deeply at the issues explored on screen.

All it took to elicit a forceful, two-minute speech from Donalson was being asked one of those anodyne, tell-me-more-about-the-show questions that create a white-noise soundtrack to each two-week press tour.

Charles Donalson III (REX/Shutterstock)

“I want each and every one of you to take away from both documentaries not that these are stories of black power or black struggle,” Donalson said. “That’s cool; we’ve seen that. But start giving us stuff where we ain’t got to struggle.” He gestured to the well-appointed ballroom’s brunch offerings at the Beverly Hilton, with overflowing platters of bacon and croissants. “Do y’all know how much food there is out there? I’m being dead serious right now. I was in here yesterday watching them set up. There’s all this stuff. All the money it would take to just set up this room. It’s situations like this where people are just hoarding wealth.”

At Oak Park and River Forest High School, where Donalson graduated, it is a similar dynamic, he argued. “It’s because white people are selfish,” he said. “Because people in power don’t want to give us the money they have. They don’t want to give us the privileges they have. Sh*t, they don’t even want to give us books! So write something about it. … take away from this that this doesn’t need to happen anymore.” Addressing TCA members directly, he said, “Don’t just say that you care. Act like you care. Don’t write about the show. Write about the problems that the show is dealing with, the struggles that made the show possible.”

Seemingly inspired by Donalson, Campbell spent the panel’s concluding minutes offering his own testimonial. (In the early going, he defaulted into jokes about his “Me So Horny” background and being “the cleanest one on the stage” at TCA.) Warriors is about Campbell’s Miami youth football program in the city’s troubled Liberty City neighborhood. Its producers include LeBron James and Maverick Carter.

“What you want to take out of these two [shows] is that this ain’t scripted. This sh*t is real,” Campbell said. He criticized a question one writer posed at the Power panel earlier this morning, about the death of a child as a key plot turn and how unusual that is on a TV show. “Kids die. Kids die every day. When you don’t understand a black family and the kids dying …” He trailed off, appearing to choke up.

“When I look at these shows, I see a lot of things we have to deal with on a daily basis,” he said. “So people may not be able to understand, ‘How do we kill the kid? We’ve never seen that.’ But the kid is being killed every day! In Liberty City and Watts and Harlem. These are the things we have to deal with.

In terms of the Starz projects, he went on, “I would hope people wouldn’t judge these two documentaries as ‘Oh, the camerawork was good’ and all this. No, no, no. When you look at America today and see what’s happening inside the African-American community, you see it right here between the two” shows.

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