Starz just debuted a new docuseries called America to Me, and it’s guaranteed to make you feel at least a little uncomfortable. The series, directed by filmmaker Steve James, follows 12 high school students as they grapple with identity and their experiences within the walls of Oak Park River Forest High School (OPRF) outside of Chicago. OPRF is home to a diverse blend of students — it’s 55% white, 27% Black, 3% Asian, and 6% biracial — that closely mirrors the mixed demographic of America itself.
In 2015, the school made headlines when some (read: white) parents and students complained that a Black Lives Matter rally held in the auditorium excluded non-Black students. Following the controversy, the local school board had a contentious debate about whether or not to approve a film crew to document the "stories of race and academics" in OPRF. The administration was not in support of a "permanent" record of OPRF's shortcomings, and lobbied for an intervention rooted in scholarship as opposed to media. Meanwhile, parents thought that this documentary was exactly what the district needed. America To Us is underscored by OPRF’s unique racial politics and history, one that proves that intention and impact are not the same thing. But if the premiere is any indication, America to Me isn’t the exposé it thinks it is. In fact, it feels more like an entry-level course in race that only its main subjects — high schoolers — would find it very illuminating.
The line between the West Side of Chicago and the Chicago suburb of Oak Park is Austin Boulevard. But in a metropolitan area that is extremely segregated and operates with hard boundaries that separate communities and divvy up resources unequally amongst them, this boulevard can help decide the future of a child. Oak Park took on a progressive identity when the village embraced racial integration during the 1960s, even introducing a fair housing ordinance. By encouraging white residents not to give in to "white flight" and stay put despite the influx of Black residents, Oak Park become a haven of diversity. To live on the west side of Austin Blvd. means access to higher property values and better schools in Oak Park, at least on paper.
In practice, however, Black members of the Oak Park community are still subject to overt and subtle forms of racism. And this disenfranchisement has seeped right into OPRF, where Black students are on the receiving end of microagressions and missed educational opportunities. For example: Deanna Paloian, the varsity cheerleading coach, has felt the need to toughen up her leadership style because most of her girls aren’t “shy” (as if cheerleaders ever are). But one of her white students recalled a conversation in which Paloian claimed that she needed to be more aggressive so that her mostly Black cheerleaders would respect her. And at the academic level, white students are improving their standardized test scores while Black students are not. “We are preparing our Black students to compete with their peers less well,” Amy Hill, Director of Assessment & Research at OPRF, says at one point during the premiere. These moments, which show that race impacts educational outcomes and that white people will use all kinds of creative, coded language to cover up their racial biases, are classic outcomes of racism that predate OPRF, not some hidden reality in America.
However, the clichés in America to Me aren't solely based in these students' lives at school. Cameras also followed some of the subjects home to speak with their parents and other family members. All the Black students come from non-nuclear families, and this background stands in as trauma porn to help viewers empathize with the ways they were set apart from their peers. It's here that James’ portrayals begin to feel voyeuristic and sensationalist. We don’t need reductive narratives that paint Black single mothers or other single female caretakers as pitifully less-equipped to raise children. We need solid critiques of racism and structural oppression. I’m interested to see how James arrives at this point through the rest of the mini-series, if he does at all.
I don't doubt that the creators of America to Me have the best intentions at heart. In fact, the production company Participant Media is releasing a social impact campaign that "will engage high schoolers, teachers, and administrators across the country to confront hard questions, address implicit bias, and take action locally to create more equitable and inclusive schools and districts across the country." It is kicking off in September and will hit 10 cities. There is a huge opportunity here to broaden the conversation about race and education in America. We need to hear those stories, too.