Who would’ve guessed Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, “Get Out” — that secretly screened at Sundance in 2017 before taking the nation by storm — would be the best introduction to one of 2018’s most substantial documentaries? No, Steve James’ new docuseries, “America To Me,” isn’t a horror show with a dark comedic bent, but it does address a similar audience — or at least one of them: namely, privileged progressives like Bradley Whitford’s father figure, Dean Armitage.
The first entry in Sundance’s inaugural Episodic Section doesn’t argue white people have evil intentions; just that many who seem eager to declare an end to racism in a post-Obama America remain less than willing to let go of a privileged past. James’ docuseries declares that now is a time for urgency, and the first three hours make quite the compelling case.
James embraces the complexities of an issue many want to believe is on the outs, and he does so in what could have been Dean’s backyard. Chicago’s Oak Park and River Forest High School is considered an elite institution, home to a diverse student population that represents America as a whole. The teachers are passionate. The programs are plentiful. It’s located in a largely liberal community, and the school attracts students with an array of racial, economic, and cultural backgrounds.
In addition to traditional arts programs, the high school offers plenty of speciality courses that typically serve as a benchmark for progressive institutions: There are leadership and creative writing courses; spoken word teachers encourage students to express themselves through poetry and rap; there are badminton clubs and an array of sports teams, and most are utilized by a diverse group of kids.
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But there’s a problem at this seemingly ideal school: Test scores are on the rise for white students, but black students aren’t seeing any progress. The gap is growing, even though it appears all students are being given the same opportunities. And no one knows why.
“There’s diversity here, but progressive? Not so much,” the school’s vice principal says in the docuseries. She’s one of the few black staff members who are striving to make changes in the school, but keep seeing indifference or opposition from their superiors. James dedicates plenty of time to their various efforts, showing how red tape, budgets, and bias can complicate attempts to change things. And what, exactly, needs to change is difficult to boil down into a power point presentation for a handful of board members and even harder to explain to a large group of parents.
James’ doc ends up doing a lot of the work for them, mostly by spending a ton of time with the kids themselves. He captures the specific moments that are hard to explain without being there — like a young black girl who feels uncomfortable with a white teacher’s constant attempts to relate to her — and the larger systemic issues that are harder to upend. An English teacher regularly notes about a lack of action from her higher-ups, who often talk a good game but don’t move forward on proposed intiatives. Is it because the board is largely white and nervous of upending the status quo? Is it because they’re making progress overall and don’t want to risk that to help a minority of students? Is it because they don’t have the funding or dedication from families?
It often seems like all of the above, as James’ documentary investigates each possible facet for the widening gap between races. His cameras go home with students to see what their home lives are like. They’re at football games and school dances. They’re on the bike ride to school and after-school assemblies. Such presence pays off in many moving portraits of the children themselves, be it Kendale McCoy, a senior who gets up every morning at 5am to cut weight for the wrestling team, or Ke’Shawn Kunsa Jr., a junior who feels like he’s destined to the same fate after school no matter what he does in it (so he doesn’t do much).
Then there’s Tiara Oliphant, who loves cheerleading but notices that the dance squad is mostly made up of white kids while her team is almost all black girls. (The dance squad requires more experience to get in, like expensive classes outside of school some students can’t afford.) Charles Donalson Jr. is pretty popular, but he admits in the first episode that, growing up, “I wanted my life to be like the white kids because their lives seemed so perfect compared to mine.”
Finally, there’s Grant Lee, a freshman who’s the first subject introduced in the premiere. He describes himself as a “very, very, very shy person,” and viewers slowly get to watch him accumulate friends, become slightly more assertive in class, and even share his first dance with a girl. He’s easily one of the most endearing characters in the series, but he also very clearly represents the future: Some of these kids have already formed their high school identity, and James knows how important these developmental years were for them, as they are for everyone.
Grant is still forming his. More kids are, too, and even more will semester after semester, year after year. “America To Me” puts its audience face-to-face with those who need their help. Telling them everything’s OK clearly isn’t enough, just like telling them to “get out” isn’t an option: It’s a good school; one they should run to, not from.
And the suburban Chicago high school is far better than it used to be. A current parent and former student describes it as “Terror Town” when she was attending. It’s not like that anymore, but it’s still far from perfect. Work needs to be done, and James outlines much of it with clarity and grace in “America to Me.” His empathetic portraits of teenage students and their earnest educators creates an affecting, insightful, and vital piece of cultural commentary. There’s no reason to be scared. This is the way out of the sunken place.
“America To Me” debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in the inaugural Episodic Section, presented by Participant Media and Kartemquin Films. It was acquired by Starz Monday morning.