“The location was three blocks from my house,” he tells Deadline. “I have never been closer to a subject.”
That location was Oak Park and River Forest High School [OPRF] west of Chicago, where the director spent the 2015-2016 school year “following stories of race and academics” at a place with an impressively diverse student body: majority white, but with a sizable black, Latino and multiracial population. But racially diverse didn’t necessarily equal racially harmonious, James found.
“The landscape of this high school, no space is race neutral,” observes assistant principal Chala Holland in Episode 1 of the 10-part series. “While this school has some diversity, it’s predictable who’s going into what space, and that’s a racial predictability.”
James and his camera teams captured informal segregation in the school lunchroom, where kids mostly ate with members of their own racial groups. A similar scene played out at the football stadium, where largely African-American students congregated at one end of the stands. The mostly black cheerleading squad performed in front of them. Meanwhile, by the other end of the stands, the predominantly white drill team did its routines before primarily white fans.
More disconcerting at OPRF has been a lack of progress to bridge a persistent academic achievement gap between white students and students of color.
“It’s failing in too many ways,” James states. “There is some really great teaching going on at that school. There is some really inspired coaching and commitment, without question. But it’s also not succeeding in ways that it needs to succeed.”
The struggle to make progress on racial equity is all the more striking because of Oak Park’s history. The neighborhood did not experience the degree of white flight that occurred in other communities in Chicago and across the U.S. in the 1960s when African-American families began to move into white enclaves.
“Oak Park is kind of a liberal’s dream of what America should be,” notes James, who has lived there for decades. He sent his own kids to OPRF. “This is such a big school and a complex organism, I do see it as a kind of stand in, in some ways, for America—both the promise and the possibility, but also the ways in which we fall short.”
James closely followed a dozen students over the year, including African-American senior Kendale McCoy, one of the rare kids to cross over racial boundaries—participating in the majority white marching band and the majority black and Latino wrestling team—and Chanti Relf, a senior of African-American and Asian descent who excelled in the Spoken Word Club. James didn’t shoot all the material himself—he had help from a talented team, including Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Bing Liu.
“I directed stories of three students that all are pretty prominent [within America to Me],” Liu tells Deadline. Among those students is Grant Lee, a shy freshman who negotiates a biracial identity, and Jada Buford, an African-American senior.
“She is just this firecracker activist who is really trying to tackle inequities in the school,” Liu says of Buford. “She starts making a web series called Dear OPRF, modeled after the Netflix series Dear White People, and it gets her in all sorts of difficult situations because it’s a very divisive, polarizing topic.”
James struggled to sign up white students for prominent roles in America to Me, parents fearing their kids would be reduced to symbols of privilege. Eventually two families agreed.
“I mistakenly thought that I could recruit them more quickly,” recalls James. “Maybe because I was a white filmmaker in the community, I thought it would be easier.”
The school administration also proved resistant to the project, instead backing an academic study of the school’s race issues. The topic of whether to approve James’ documentary plan was addressed at a school board meeting before the 2015-2016 academic year started.
“I said at the board meeting, ‘I think studies are great,’” James recalls, “‘but there have been studies done in Oak Park in the past…A film is a different thing that can also provide a mirror in a way that a study won’t.’”
The board overruled the administration’s objections and let James and company in. The filmmaker insists his purpose with America to Me was not limited to documenting racial dynamics at OPRF.
“I’d say the other goal was to profile the lives of mostly black and biracial kids,” he comments. “And to both understand something about the obstacles and systemic racism that they face despite living where they live, but also—and I think we do this—to celebrate who they are as kids. That’s not bound by race.”
America to Me will compete for Emmy nominations in multiple categories, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction series, as well as Outstanding Cinematography for a Nonfiction Program.
The show’s title comes from a famous poem by Langston Hughes, which expresses the feeling that America’s promise has been denied to a wide range of its citizens.