Wide Angle

Steve James on How Oak Park Has Reacted to America to Me

Three years later, many are still arguing about that pool. Others have looked deeper.

Jada Buford and Tyrone Williams.
Jada Buford and Tyrone Williams. America to Me

Over the course of the last two and a half months, America to Me has spent 10 and a half hours with students, teachers, parents, and administrators of Oak Park and River Forest High School, a progressive public school just outside of Chicago that has for decades been struggling to close its racial “achievement gap.” Directed by Hoop Dreams’ Steve James, along with Kevin Shaw, Rebecca Parrish, and Bing Liu, the series spends the course of a year following 12 students—black, white, and mixed-race—and the communities that meet or fail to address their needs. Although it was designed as a TV series, America to Me doesn’t depend on cliffhangers to propel its audience through a binge-watching flurry. Instead, each episode makes a coherent statement while moving us forward through the year, building up to a 90-minute finale in which both the community’s problems and the students’ hopes for the future feel as if they’ve peaked. Taken as a whole, the series is a testament to how individuals can persevere within a broken system, and how much harder that system makes it for some of them.

With America to Me finally complete—the entire thing can be streamed via the Starz app—Slate called James at home in Oak Park to talk about the current state of OPRF, why it was so hard to get white families to participate, and how the series was shaped by all the things he wasn’t allowed to film.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sam Adams: You’ve done long projects before but nothing on the scale of America to Me, and you’ve never had a project air as a conventional TV series before. What has the process of watching it enter the world piece by piece over the course of several months been like for you?

Steve James: It’s definitely different. When we did The New Americans, we wanted it to be a weekly series, but public television wasn’t willing to do that. They rolled it all out in the course of three nights, with the last night being three hours long, and it was just brutal. Now the marketplace and the expectations around a docuseries are such that you can do that kind of thing. For the most part, what I hear is that we’ve had a lot of people really watching it weekly and being very engaged by it. Frankly, I wish more people had seen the series …

What has the response been like at OPRF, and in Oak Park generally?

They hosted their own screenings every Monday after the premiere of the episode, and then they break off into discussion groups. I’ve stayed away from them because I just felt like I did not want to be a distraction or hindrance in any way. But I’ve talked to people who’ve been going to them, and there’s been a lot of good conversation. I think there’s a feeling that there haven’t been enough black residents attending those screenings, but the fact that so many white people are participating and embracing and engaging in conversations is really needed here. The black people watching this series, I think for many of them, they’re having an understanding of “Yes, that’s what I’ve been through, exactly.” Whereas for a lot of the white people watching it this is like “Oh, really, wow, I thought we were better than this.” There’s more of a learning curve going on.

In the Wednesday Journal, which is the weekly paper here, this black writer who actually went to the school has been writing weekly columns where he just uses the series as a springboard to talk about any number of things. In the column last week, with Episode 9, he talked about how he hears from a lot of black folks in Oak Park who feel like the series didn’t show enough of the really successful black students and families in the community. It’s focused more on the ones who are having more struggles, and he makes the comment that that’s kind of what the series is addressing, that part of our community. I ran into a woman in town yesterday who was making the same point. She was saying, “This is a series that’s focused in the ways in which we are failing. And we are failing.” A lot of the more successful and higher-income black families didn’t choose to participate. And she said, “I’m one of those families. I heard about it, but I didn’t want to participate.” There are other people who are reacting more defensively and saying, “We’re better than they’re showing us to be.” It’s created a lot of frank conversation and debate, which I think is great. I’m all for that. I didn’t expect the community, especially a community like this, to watch it and just go “We love it, yes, great!” I expected reactions all over the place.

Gabriel Townsell.
Gabriel Townsell. America to Me

You do bring in Gabe later in the series, a black student who’s a star wrestler taking Advanced Placement classes and has already committed to attending Stanford.

We wanted Gabe from the beginning of the school year, and we filmed him in different settings with Kendale. But his parents had gotten the mistaken notion that we were doing some kind of promotional film for the high school, and they did not want their son to be held up as the shining example of how great Oak Park River Forest High School is. It’s only after I was helping Kevin [Shaw] shoot a wrestling meet that I approached Gabe’s dad, Richard, and talked to him a little more about it that he realized what we were doing and he was totally on board. Of course, as soon as he became a formal part of it and we started trying to get into classrooms of Gabe’s, the AP class teachers all said no. I’m like “Why wouldn’t you want us to see this incredibly terrific student in your AP class”? It’s wrapped up in all these fears of showing their class to be overwhelmingly white, concerns that Gabe’s experience in their class may not be as great as they hope it to be. This is a community that is really, for all its liberal ideas and embrace of diversity, tied in knots over race.

It seems similar to the problems you encountered when trying to get white families to participate in the series. You got a lot of “Wow, that sounds like a great idea, but you’re not filming my kid.”

And the families that participated are middle-class families. They are not the wealthy families. There are a lot of wealthy families in Oak Park, and most of them are white. We couldn’t get any of them. I’m talking about all this stuff we weren’t able to get. We got a lot. But Kendale had friends who lived in River Forest who lived in really huge homes. We tried to get those kids to participate and to let us see him go see them, which is something he would do. And it was like “Nope, nope, nope, you’re not coming into our house.” It’s like “OK, I know what you’re doing, I know what you guys are doing, you’re gonna hold us up for ridicule.” Which was not the intention honestly, but I get that they didn’t want to trust us on that.

It seems like a profit-loss calculation on their part. It would be nice to contribute to a more honest dialogue about the effects of systemic racism in the American educational system, but what’s in it for me?

Right. And that’s why I have such admiration for the families who were willing to participate. Because not only did they step forward and say, “We’ll be a part of this,” but they knew that they had things they were wrestling with and that we were expecting them to address that. And they did. I think any subject, including, obviously our black and biracial kid families that support or are willing to be in something like this, that is a courageous act. Given the topic we’re exploring and the way we’re exploring it, it’s particularly courageous of the white families, too.

That’s something that comes out in the story of Brendan, who’s one of the white subjects. He’s an athlete who describes having been friends with black teammates all through grade and middle school, but when he got to high school, suddenly friend groups become much more segregated.

Brendan and his family, I think, speak particularly well to that. There’s a sense of loss from what they had in grammar school, a loss of that innocence and a time when it felt like we were all the same. They weren’t all the same; that’s the reality. Their white friends are clueless to what they’re going through, right? They’re not seeing that. From their point of view, we’re all the same.

But yeah, even Brendan noticed. He was upset, he came home at one point and said, “They told this black kid in class he was not smart.” To have all that become much more pronounced and clear in the minds of kids as they grow older, and understand where they fit and don’t fit into this country, it is unfortunate. We watched it happen with our oldest son. His best friend growing up was older than him, and that was part of the problem as they got older, but [it was a] black family that lived next door to us, and they just played every day and had the greatest time. But then as they got older, then things began to separate. It’s not a calculated thing sometimes. It’s just what happens.

There was an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune last week about a white OPRF graduate saying that the school gave him the impression the world was a lot less racist than it is, and two black graduates who were incredulous that he never noticed the racism within the school itself.

It’s funny. My youngest son, Jackson, who worked with me on the film, he tells me that when the series was getting underway, there were a lot of white students posting, “That wasn’t my experience at the school. That’s not right.” And he was like, “Well, yeah. I guess it wasn’t your experience. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” Oak Park is just such an interesting place. I love the community in so many ways. But the kind of blindness that I think a lot of white liberals who live here would attribute to Republicans, and Trump followers, and people who are politically conservative blinds them from their own blindness in a way that is just part of being a white American in this country.

You’ve said in interviews that you can’t say how the presence of the camera does or doesn’t affect how people act, but one thing you know for sure is that being the subject of a documentary causes people to become more self-reflective. Is that true for institutions as well?

Well, I guess we’ll find out. If there’s one thing the series helped do for the community, it’s that it helped get rid of a superintendent who wasn’t doing much of anything. Steven Isoye left, and the reporter from the Wednesday Journal says—and he’s right—that part of the reason he left was he did not want to be around when the series came out. I know that to be true. That’s why I put that in there. It wasn’t just patting ourselves on the back: It’s indisputable that was part of his calculation to leave. This new superintendent, she does appear to be more focused and determined to attack equity issues, certainly more so than the outgoing guy. And Jackie Moore, the most outspoken board member in the series, is now president of the school board.
Jackie is someone I’ve gotten to know quite well as a part of this experience, and she’s someone who’s very determined to make change here and lasting change.

So there are people here, I think, that institutionally want to turn the aircraft carrier in the right direction. But they will have their work cut out for them, because at the end of the day this community and this school system works, for the most part, extremely well for white kids and for the people who wield the most influence in this community—the wealthy, the lawyers, the people and the families that the school relies on to stay a part of that school, because a lot of those families could send their kids to private school. They could send them anywhere they want. Part of maintaining the viability of this school system here is that white families of wealth stay engaged and committed to the school. For them, the school has worked perfectly well all these years, and real change could threaten that. If the school decides that they want to seriously consider detracking, that’s going to be a tough one here. That’s going to be a battle, if they decide to go down that route.

Detracking, which would mean eliminating the distinction between largely white honors classes and the college prep classes where most students of color end up, is one of the most explosive issues in the series. You have one parent who speaks for many when they say it’s a great idea in theory, but their kids come first.

It’s actually coach Hoerster, the football coach, who says, “Yeah, detracking sounds great, but do it after my kids leave.”

It’s is a very honest, commonplace, parental reaction, but it is also a fundamental reason why things don’t change.

The difference between here and other, more conservative places in America is that we will pay lip service to that kind of change but not be willing to really do it when push comes to shove.

Jessica Stovall.
Jessica Stovall. America to Me

Jessica Stovall, a biracial teacher who was raised in rural Wisconsin, is one of the teachers we see working hardest for change in America to Me. Given the resistance she meets along the way, especially toward the end of the series, it is saddening but not surprising that she has since left the school.

And she’s in grad school at Stanford, which is great for her. They love having her there, so it’s a good thing. But she left. She took that route because of her unhappiness at Oak Park and River Forest High School. In other words, if she had been happy and felt her ideas were welcome, she’d still be there. And that’s a real loss, because she’s a terrific teacher. Whatever you think of her, in terms of her WOVEN idea, she’s just a terrific teacher that’s now gone. A teacher of color.

There’s been a lot of teachers of color and administrators, like [former OPRF Assistant Principal] Chala Holland, another example, who had left there. That’s why there’s that whole section in Episode 9 where we delve into the experiences of black teachers in that school, both the lack of them and their feelings of disenfranchisement. That is so true in that school. I suspect it’s true around the country. Even the black teachers who are there struggle to want to stay. And this is not one of those school districts where the teachers are not paid well. Oak Park is one of those places where, from a salary standpoint: Oh, my God. If I could get into that school system, that’s where I want to be! There are so many reasons why one would want, you would think, to be here, and yet there are a lot of black teachers and administrators over the years who have basically said, “I have to get out of here.”

The school’s administration says early in the series that they don’t want you filming in the school because they would prefer an approach to racial issues that is “rooted in scholarship rather than media.” But Jessica Stovall proposed WOVEN, which is a data-driven approach to eliminating racial bias, and they didn’t want that either.

The other thing that they struggle with at that school, they were struggling mightily with it when we were filming and they’re still struggling with it, is what’s called the racial equity leadership within the school. The District Equity Leadership Team only met once during the course of the time we were there, and we weren’t at that meeting, and that’s the one where Jackie Moore says she looked around the room and saw these mostly white men and was like, “What are we doing here? This is the District Equity Leadership Team?”

Several members of the team told me privately that there was no way that they were going to meet the year we were filming. They did not want to have to say no to us and have us indicate that the District Equity Leadership Team was not willing to let us film them, so they just basically disbanded for the entire year. The equity leadership in that school has been problematic for a while. And that extends to people like Jess. To say to Jess that she’s not equipped to do equity work. When you see the way she is in this film, if she’s not equipped to do equity work, well, who is? I mean, come on.

It’s a little staggering to see her come out of a meeting with Nate Rouse, who is still the principal at OPRF, and say she’s been told that she’s not an appropriate person to work on diversity issues because she sees through too much of “a white lens.”

Well, part of the problem at the school is that some of the people who feel she’s not equipped, like Nate, are black. In a community like Oak Park, in terms of some of these issues, it’s like the worst impulses of the left run amok: “Where you are not as woke as me, you’re not equipped to do what you want to do, because you aren’t as aware as I am of these issues.” People who are really all on the same side in the most significant ways are at each other’s throats, and they’re not effective change-makers because the people who should be pulling together are pulling apart. And that’s been the history of the left in so many ways, right?

The board also gets consumed later in the series by the issue of whether the school needs to build a new pool.

Yes. They’re still wrestling over the pool three years later.

Of course they are.

And it’s, again, for the principally white community. It’s true for everybody who lives here and pays taxes, of course. But the white residents get the most exercised about anything that has to do with taxes and spending money. All that gets their attention. And then it’s also the image of Oak Park. As the one guy that stands up in the meeting says, “If we don’t basically do a spectacular pool, then this will not be the kind of community that people want to move to.” You know?

And he’s not talking about black people there. I’m sorry. He’s talking about white people of affluence. I shot just about every board meeting myself, personally, because I didn’t feel like I could impose that on my team. In all those pool debates, I didn’t see a single black person get up and weigh in on any of the pool plans. There were some people who stood up and said at different points, like Jackie Moore says in her speech to them in that one scene, “I’d like to see us focus on equity and what we’re doing about equity more than on the pool.” But this was a white issue, and the lines were drawn between white people and other white people. Now they have this plan that they’re wrestling with, which is even more expensive. It may be a great idea or not, but three years later, they’re still wrestling over essentially what started as the pool.

A big part of what makes America to Me so successful is the breadth of its focus, but is there a particular story that stands out to you, one that’s especially moving or emblematic?

… For me, in some ways, the heart of the experience was Terrence, because he really does represent the kind of kid that can get truly lost in a school like Oak Park. And get truly lost in terms of who we look at to tell the stories of young people in America. He’s extremely quiet. He has this learning disability that he feels self-conscious about, that makes it even harder for him in a lot of ways. He’s a kid that wants to disappear. Kids like Terrence don’t typically get followed in documentaries. Because they don’t fit a certain expectation of what an audience will want to watch, right?

Terrence Moore.
Terrence Moore. America to Me

It would be difficult to build an entire documentary about him, because he reacts to his learning disability by becoming withdrawn and difficult to read.

Exactly. But yet, he’s this incredible kid and he’s a lovely human being, and he has a mom who is just so bound and determined. When we went to find the kids who we were going to follow in this, I knew it was really important that the family was part of the story. So once I met Terrence and met his mom Talisha and then met Tiara in this very unusual family situation that had been put together so that these two kids could go to this school, I was just really struck by each of them, and the different struggles each of them have, and the ways in which they try to navigate that across the school year.

So many stories that are told about black youth in documentary—and when I say this, I’m pointing the finger squarely at myself—are about the desperately poor, the kids who live in violent neighborhoods, who are really up against enormous obstacles in every way they turn. They are important stories, for sure. But they’re also the most dramatic stories. All the incredible people that worked on this series, we collectively set out to tell stories when it came to our black and biracial kids that have not been told nearly enough. And to try to and hopefully engage you as a viewer in their lives and understand that there are stakes in their lives, too, and there are real obstacles in their lives that may not be as overt as some of the ones that exist for inner-city kids. But their stories matter, too, and they are also really thinking about where we are headed and where they are headed. Their level of insight and understanding and sophistication just blew me away, pretty much across the board.

You’ve lived in Oak Park for decades, and you put three kids through OPRF, but that’s not the same as spending a year filming inside the school. Do you think of Oak Park differently now?

It’s funny, I’ve lived in this community for a long time, but in terms of my professional life, I’ve been way more focused on the city of Chicago. I’ve always thought about Oak Park as this place I just come back to, that was where I lived, that was comfortable—I liked the diversity and the politics of the community, and it’s a great place to live. But I was also, all those years, struck by the ways in which we as a community failed to live up to our image and our ideals. You mention Oak Park to white people in Chicago, and I have to immediately say to them, “I don’t live in a Frank Lloyd Wright home.” Because there are all these assumptions that that’s what Oak Park stands for. You talk to black people, and you scratch the surface of it, and what they say to you is that Oak Park thinks it’s so hot and liberal and, boy, they’re not nearly as that as they think they are. So for me, to make this series, was a chance to really try to delve into that reality of what it means to be in this community and not be white—but also to be white, to the extent that we could capture it.

It doesn’t make me want to move out of Oak Park. Although my brother, when I told him I was doing the series, he asked me where I planned to live once it came out. I’m still happy that I live in Oak Park and can be part of this. What I actually feel like I’ve done with this series is I finally embraced really, fully, the community that I live with, in a deeper way. And done something that I hope can be a meaningful part of changing the community, instead of just being someone who lives here and sent my kids to good schools and tried to be a good liberal. I feel like now I’ve actually done something in this community that I think has value and I hope will have ongoing value. And that makes me feel good about it, and that makes me, more than ever, not want to leave the community.