Some documentary makers are adept at addressing the structural forces that govern society, and others are skilled at emotional, character-driven storytelling, but few do both simultaneously with the richness and precision of Steve James.
James’ 1994 nonfiction epic, “Hoop Dreams,” is generally considered one of the greatest sports movies ever made, and he received an Oscar nomination for last year’s “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” which is in the process of being remade as a Hollywood courtroom drama.
James has directed a series of deeply personal films, but his extraordinary 10-part Starz documentary series “America to Me,” which premiered last Sunday, hits especially close to home. It follows the experiences of 12 students (and their families) over the course of the 2015-16 academic year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, a diverse, well-resourced school in a comfortable Chicago suburb that nevertheless has failed over and over in its attempts to address the achievement gap between white and black students.
Oak Park is James’ home, and OPRF is the high school where he sent his three children. The series does not pull its punches in depicting Oak Park’s racial inequities.
“My brother joked,” James said, “when I told him I was doing this: ‘Where do you plan to live when this comes out?’ ”
Oak Park, significantly, is just outside the Chicago city limits, but “America to Me” emphasizes that it was not designed as a white-flight suburb. It’s the kind of town where liberal-minded urban dwellers move to take advantage of an educational system that is both high-achieving and diverse. James said it’s the very reason he and his wife decided to live there and why it made for a more compelling onscreen case study than a failing urban school district.
“I thought it would be interesting to look at a community like Oak Park, where you would think issues around equity in education would be solved, and try to understand why. If you look at just poor public schools, then you’re going to be focused on the more obvious reasons why [inequity] happens there. And in a place like Oak Park, it affords an opportunity to look more deeply into the entrenched racism in the culture as a whole, even in liberal communities.”
The cast of characters in “America to Me” — named for a line in a Langston Hughes poem that laments the country’s failed promises and hopes for better — covers all the grades and scholarly tracks of the school, but the vast majority of subjects are black or biracial. James and his team had trouble finding white students who were willing to speak openly about race, and potentially serve as emblems of white privilege.
“Ideally, the relationship between the subjects and us as filmmakers should be one where it feels that we’re making the film with them and not on them, that they have some agency of their own in the telling of their story.”
In many cases, these relationships continue well after the cameras stop rolling. James mentioned that he just had attended the 45th birthday of Arthur Agee, the former basketball prodigy at the center of “Hoop Dreams,” and had had dinner the week before with Ameena Matthews, whose attempts to ameliorate gang violence are a subject of his film “The Interrupters.”
The onscreen participants’ trust in James’ methods creates a drama in which even the antagonists are well meaning. “America to Me” is particularly focused on the school’s teachers, some genuinely awe-inspiring, others somewhat misguided, but all heroically attempting to make up for the administration’s inability to narrow the racial achievement gap.
For James, confronting the limitations of white teachers in racially diverse classrooms also meant addressing his own biases as a white filmmaker with a long history of making documentaries about black lives.
James said he’s been asked about navigating his own whiteness since the days of “Hoop Dreams,” which dealt with an inner city high school basketball team, but that the question used to be rooted in curiosity about his approach. “But now, the conversation has shifted to ‘who has the right to tell those stories,’ ” he said.
“And I think that’s a vitally important conversation, and it means that for someone like me, who has been doing this for a long time and has told a lot of stories in communities of color, I have to think very carefully about how I approach telling stories in that space, and who becomes part of telling those stories with me. I have come to realize more strongly than ever that the makeup of my team is vitally important.”
In making his initial pitch to the school board, James promised that he would recruit a talented group of filmmakers to work as on-the-ground “segment directors,” each of them responsible for following three students. Crucially, none of the three filmmakers — Bing Liu, Rebecca Parrish and Kevin Shaw — was a white man.
“I don’t think Steve ever explicitly said so, but it’s pretty clear he was hiring a diverse crew, not only with age but also gender and race — integrating into a 2015 high school setting,” said Liu.
James, who was about 25 years younger when he roamed the halls of a Chicago high school making “Hoop Dreams,” knew he would have trouble blending into the wallpaper. He didn’t have a problem playing a paternal role, either; in one scene, he asks one of his subjects why she hasn’t been completing her homework, and in another, why she’s late for school.
The 29-year-old Liu said he had the opposite problem: “I look so young that I often got stopped by hall monitors, who were like: ‘Young man, where’s your pass?’ It started getting under my skin, actually.”
But the lack of a (visible, at least) generation gap allowed him to build meaningful relationships with the students he followed. “We could relate about social media,” he said, “or I would share stories about my high school experience.”
Liu worked on his own directorial debut, the autobiographical documentary “Minding the Gap,” while he was filming “America to Me.” The film, nearly the equal of “Hoop Dreams” in its emotional and sociological precision, premiered on Hulu in August. James said it “may be the documentary of the year.”
James’ films have never been known for their brevity, but the 10-hour docu-series format (and the team of talented collaborators) allowed “America to Me” to explore a thorny political issue while also incorporating the emotional highs and lows of a more traditional high-school movie.
“It allowed us to go deep into the lives of all the kids with different experiences and racial and educational differences, while at the same time covering the school as an institution. [It’s got the] homecoming dance, big football game, wrestling championship, prom and graduation. This expansive format allowed us to do something both epic and intimate.”
Though “America to Me” tackles Oak Park and River Forest High School as a singular institution, it becomes clear over the course of the series that its educational model depends on keeping students on three separate but unequal tracks — and fostering a relentless sense of competition.
“What I know from being a parent there — and having three kids go through there — is that the school was a very different experience depending on where you found yourself in terms of tracks,” James noted. “My three kids were in very different tracks. My wife and I came to understand how different a school is depending on where you feel you are in the pecking order. It’s just like American society.”
To change the system, well-heeled white parents will have to make genuine sacrifices and internalize the idea that diversity does not automatically foster equity.
So how will it play in Oak Park?
“It’s too early to tell,” James said, “but I’m hopeful that people will see this as a complex mirror portrait of the community. It is critical, but there’s plenty to be proud of inside that school. I hope they see this series as a way to have much more active and focused efforts and conversations on what needs to happen here. To not be satisfied with ‘We’re doing all we can.’ ”
James includes himself in that “we.” He doesn’t plan to move anytime soon.
‘America to Me’
When: 10 p.m. Sunday