In the second episode of America to Me, which premieres this Sunday on Starz, Chala Holland, a black assistant principal at Oak Park and River Forest High School, starts to tear up as she describes her frustrations with trying to work in a system “grounded in white cultural norms.” It’s the kind of moment we’re used to seeing reality TV shows milk for all it’s worth, but the choke has barely crept into Holland’s voice when you hear Steve James, who directed the series’ 10 episodes, ask her if she wants to stop filming. No, she responds, “This is me.”
The ability to elicit that kind of reaction and the wisdom to downplay it are both characteristic of James’ documentaries, which include Life Itself, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, and Hoop Dreams, to which America to Me serves as a kind of loose follow-up. Unlike the aspiring basketball stars of Hoop Dreams, who spent hours in transit from black Chicago neighborhoods to a suburban, largely white high school, the students of OPRF aren’t fish out of water. The public high school draws from its immediate surroundings just outside the city, in a liberal, mixed-race neighborhood whose residents, we’re told, resisted “white flight” in favor of an “American experiment in true diversity.” The school’s racial breakdown bears that out, with a student body that is just over half white and nearly a quarter black. But while the graduation rate is 95 percent, there’s a pronounced gap in test scores and future prospects between white students and students of color that one administrator says has remained virtually static, despite being a known issue since 2003.
As America to Me picks up the story in 2015, it’s clear that experiment is, at best, inconclusive. A Black Lives Matter assembly open only to students of color has sparked controversy both inside the school and in the media, because the third rail of liberal tolerance is the suggestion that there are discussions better had without white people in the room. (James, who is white, worked with a diverse crew of segment directors, including Rebecca Parrish, Kevin Shaw, and Minding the Gap’s Bing Liu.) “They have to realize,” one black student says, “that some things just have to be ours.”
Although two white students enter the series at the midway point—five episodes were provided in advance—America to Me is squarely focused on OPRF’s black students, in part, James has said in interviews, because it was so difficult to find white students who could talk articulately about race. (He’s not the only artist to reach this kind of conclusion: Playwright Young Jean Lee said that she had to abandon her traditionally collaborative writing process for Straight White Men, which is now on Broadway, because actors in the play’s titular demographic hadn’t thought enough about their identity to contribute anything of substance.) But some of the starkest differences don’t need to be put into words. The first episode closes with a sequence showing sophomore Tiara Oliphant practicing with a mostly black cheerleading squad whose white coach pulls black dancers into line with a curt “girlfriend.” The disparities accumulate gradually, until a striking finale, which contrasts the cheerleaders, who perform their routines at the end of the football stands to a largely black crowd of students, to the nearly all-white drill squad, who strut their stuff around the 50-yard line. The latter squad, its coach explains, is composed of girls who “come in with more dance experience” and, she grudgingly admits, just happen to be white. But America to Me’s razor-sharp crosscutting strips away the embedded rationales, the tacit understanding that this is just how it is, and presents the dance teams as they so obviously are, both separate and unequal.
James habitually ends America to Me’s episodes with similar contests: a football game where the opposing team taunts OPRF’s black players with racist gibes on the field, a basketball game against an Oak Park parochial school whose overwhelmingly white students marshal synchronized cheers boasting of their (supposedly) superior standardized test scores. As in Hoop Dreams, the sports sequences add motion and miniaturized drama to a story that’s often focused on people sitting in rooms, but they also serve as reminders that life in the U.S. is a perpetual contest, staged on an uneven field according to rules you have to figure out as you play.
There are more subjects in America to Me than a single review can encompass: Kendale McCoy, a senior who flips back and forth between the school’s mostly white marching band and its largely black championship wrestling squad; Chanti Relf, a mixed-race nonbinary student whose personal woes threaten her spot on the spoken-word team; Jessica Stovall, a mixed-race teacher whose black father grew up in the Pruitt-Igoe projects and raised her in rural Wisconsin and who now says she has to “code-switch to the black community”; a slew of well-meaning white teachers whose attempts to give their black students special attention are sometimes cringe-inducing in their wrongheadedness. (“I was just listening to Lauryn Hill on the way to school,” one try-hard instructor says. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.”) Sometimes the sharpest perspectives come from parties who are never seen again, like the black security guard who says that black students will openly challenge his authority—this is high school, after all—while “the white kids are kind of sneaky with their blows.”
Even in a series this expansive, you keep wishing you could spend more time with more people, but its scope allows James and his team to show both victories and defeats fade into the past, how fragile and yet how resilient its protagonists can be. As he’s watching from the football sidelines, one white student photographer says in awe that the racism on the field is “unreal—like from a movie scene.” But movies have middles and ends, and despite decades of attention, Oak Park as an institution feels as if it’s only just beginning to understand the problems its students face.
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