At Oak Park and River Forest High School, a socially liberal institution on the outskirts of Chicago, it’s the first big football game of the season. Rowdy fans and classmates dominate the center of the stands, watching the drill team dance in front of them. But pan down to the tail end of the field and you’ll find the cheerleaders, obscured from the majority of their classmates and relegated to the arena’s proverbial backseat. Race makes the split even starker: drill girls are mostly white; cheer is mostly black.
This polarity caught the attention of Steve James, the acclaimed documentarian behind Hoop Dreams and other favorites, back in 2002 when his eldest son was a student at the school. Sixteen years later, OPRF’s rift between the races—in the stadium and outside—is still staggering. In the halls and lunchroom, white students stick with white friends; black students with black and biracial friends. And though only about half of the student body is white, their achievement surpasses that of their classmates of color by leaps and bounds.
A suburb near the West Side of Chicago, Oak Park is the type of place that likes to pat itself on the back for progressive values and a history of inclusivity. Fittingly, OPRF is a rigorous public high school, the kind that attracts throngs of families jockeying for their children’s success. Even in this type of community, James sought to show that inherent bias and divisive attitudes can creep in to form craters of misunderstanding and barriers to equity.
“I felt like, if you look at a place where obvious obstacles to achievement are not in place, then it could allow you to get at something that’s more deeply embedded in our culture, institutionally and systemically,” James tells The Daily Beast. “Especially if you’re looking in your liberal backyard, because you can’t blame it on Republicans. Oak Park can’t blame it Republicans.”
In 2015, once James received a reluctant go-ahead from the school board, he assembled a young, diverse group of segment directors and dove in. During the school year, the team of four trailed a series of students, their families, and their teachers through classes, activities, and home life. The result, which spans over 10 hours in a new episodic series on Starz, is America to Me: a broad panorama of an ostensibly tolerant district, with its social and racial fault lines underscored in red. The show takes its name from a Langston Hughes verse: “American never was America to me / And yet I swear this oath — / America will be!”
Formally, America to Me has an addictive quality that recalls early reality shows like Laguna Beach: it offers a juicy window into the lives of real people in ordinary routines. But little by little, the show seeps into every corner of the school—from the wrestling team to spoken-word club to biology class to a film seminar—creating a sweeping, spellbinding canvas of attentive detail and gradation.
The subjects are wide and varied, yet the show confronts each one’s struggles and perspectives with sympathy. There’s Chanti, a shy biracial junior navigating gender identity and intense ambition; Tiara, a black sophomore who struggles in school and loves the cheer squad; Kendale, a black senior who splits his time between marching band and wrestling; to name a few. Then there are the teachers: Jessica Stovall, who teaches English and talks candidly about her own encounters with racism; the white science teacher Aaron Podolner, who takes comfort in his own racial enlightenment yet rubs some students the wrong way.
But any attempt to sum up these multidimensional people does them a disservice. As much as they come alive in front of the camera, inspiring our interest and concern, they defy easy definition more than most onscreen subjects. “I’m a big fan of nuance in storytelling,” James smiles, when I marvel at the show’s supreme subtlety. “My favorite scenes are always the ones where there’s so much going on that you hope the viewer is tempted to stop and rewind and watch it again, because they don’t feel like they’ve got it just figured out.”
The parents, too, provide fascinating through-lines. There are single-parent households and families with both parents present, as well as kids who live with aunts, grandparents, or older siblings. All of the adults approach their teens’ development with care, whether that manifests in bulldog ambition or best-pal support.
“It was really important to us to put to the test some of the assumptions that we make about families, particularly black families in this country, when it comes to education,” James says. “There’s been a tendency in the media and on the part of white people to say, ‘Well if a kid’s coming out of a single-parent home, you’re stacking the deck against them.’ Or that black parents don’t have the same rigorous expectations. I’ve never seen that in my life as a filmmaker.”
For any teen or family, permitting a stranger to document your every move is a big ask. White students, especially, were tough to coax into consenting—they knew the show’s focus and were wary of coming off as the ignorant bad guy. Though most of the show’s main subjects are black, James chose to introduce several white students halfway through the season, including a baseball star and top-achieving honors student. Building trust with each of his subjects—both white and black—required total openness while still respecting boundaries. During several raw moments, James includes a parent requesting that the camera be shut off, or a segment director checking whether a teacher is comfortable continuing.
“For this generation especially, cameras are everywhere,” James says. “They’re in all our pockets. People post videos on Snapchat or Facebook. The camera is, in every respect, way more prevalent in the culture. When I was first starting out, you’d be in the street and kids would be coming up and going, ‘What station are you with?’ You’d draw a crowd. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
The level of sophisticated awareness that many of the students bring to their situation is baffling and impressive. “They’re gonna open the documentary with a shot of us rapping, and somebody behind the school selling drugs,” a black student jokes while his friends goof off in the lunchroom one day. Affecting a somber narrator voice, he riffs, “Oak Park River Forest High School… with an achievement gap as wide as this man’s body.” In another scene, an aspiring filmmaker named Jada screens her documentary about colorism, in which she interviews peers about prejudice against darker skin tones. “I don’t think you can define blackness with complexion,” she reflects in the short.
The dissonance between the students’ (and many parents’ and teachers’) awareness of the school’s unfairness and the administration’s inability to meaningfully confront it represents the central tension throughout the series. Anyone can see that it’s ridiculous that the cheer squad has been posted in the end zone for over a decade. But most of the racism within OPRF’s walls is betrayed through microaggressions and subtle divisions, which can be harder to pinpoint. Appropriately, America to Me doesn’t strive to solve the issues it unveils; it’s less lecture or shocking exposé than empathic wake-up call.
“I want people to take away that the lives of the kids we follow—which are not kids who are growing up in abject poverty or in dangerous neighborhoods—that they have real obstacles and struggles to overcome when it comes to issues of race and class,” says James. “I also want people to watch the series, particularly white people, and take stock of their level of comfort with the way the world is. That it’s not enough to just feel like you live in a diverse community, if you do, and send your kids to a diverse public high school, and say all the right things. That’s not enough. That’s not going to change anything.”
“Oak Park is a great school for white kids. It can be a great school for kids of color, and has been,” he adds. “But it’s not nearly as far along in that part of the process as it needs to be. And the will to change that has got to come from white people.”