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‘America to Me’: Meet Charles and Jada, Two Teens in Steve James’ Docuseries Who Want More TV Shows About Black Teens

Jada Bufford and Charles Donalson III share their expectations for "America to Me" and why it's important the world sees their "whole" story. [Exclusive Video]

America To Me 2018 Jada Buford

Jada Buford in “America to Me”


Odds are you don’t know Charles Donalson III or Jada Buford — not yet. But that’s about to change when Steve James’ new Starz docuseries, “America to Me,” premieres Sunday night. Donalson and Buford are among the standout subjects, in part because they understand the project’s goals better than most.

“You never hear people talking about the issues of our generation from us,” Buford said in an interview with IndieWire. “So that’s one thing I’m excited for, but one thing I really hope people take away is the humanity part; we’re real human beings. A lot of times there are people like me and Charles who are racially conscious —”

“Outspoken people,” Donalson added.

“People perceive that race is the only [talking point] we can bring to the table,” Buford said. “With this documentary, you get to see us being teenagers — and you don’t get to see black teenagers! We’ve yet to see narratives —”

“Where black teenagers are actually teenagers, like in real life,” Donalson said.

“In documentaries and in narratives,” Buford said. “I’m waiting for a TV show just to show black teenagers being black teenagers.”

[Editor’s Note: Click the “x” in the upper right corner to play video.]

“America to Me” is a step in that direction on the doc side of things. Set in Chicago’s Oak Park River Forest High School, the 10-part series follows teachers and students trying to solve a problem that’s difficult to define. Despite a diverse student body, progressive community, and a wide-spanning (and well-funded) curriculum, there’s a growing gap between the white and black students’ test scores.

Buford, an aspiring filmmaker who now has an internship at Participant Media (one of the series’ producers), knows the topics dealt with in the series aren’t easy to talk about. Many documentaries about failing school systems look at the worst of the worst, while “America to Me” examines institutionalized racism that’s harder to single out.

“There are some people who […] say, ‘Oh, this is a suburban school. What can they bring to the conversation about race and equity, when you have all these resources?'” Buford said.

Donalson is excited for the series to provide context and depth to the subjects’ lives.

“My whole story isn’t me being black,” Donalson said. “I’m black and that affects a large part of my story, but that is not my entire story. And I also feel that way just with so much that’s going on: People apply content over skill, people apply popularity over skill, and then that creates an affirming society that just wants to hear about racism with no action behind it, or with no self-critical analysis.”

[Editor’s Note: Click the “x” in the upper right corner to play video.]

Buford noted how pre-release reactions to trailers and early screenings have covered the spectrum, from classmates who are just excited to see themselves on TV to people who are nervous because the show looks like it will “make people uncomfortable.”

“And then there’s another conversation of people who are like, ‘Finally!'” she said. “There are some people who want to engage: ‘Oh, this is going to be something’ — the envelope is about to be pushed.”

“I hope ‘America to Me’ helps people — especially a person in power — to look inside themselves and see that, ‘I either perpetuate this,’ or, ‘By not trying to stop it, that’s me perpetuating,'” Donalson said.

“We do live in this era where Trump is the president, but when this was being filmed, we were in the Obama era — and the Black Lives Matter movement, too, and the social-media age,” Buford said. “We have all those things that impact our lives, but then at the same time that just make us human, too. I’m against people being colorblind; you have to acknowledge our race, but at the same time you have to acknowledge our humanity.”

“America to Me” premieres Sunday, August 26 at 9 p.m. on Starz.

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