Steve James on 'America to Me' Impact, Racist Incidents at Oak Park High School in Wake of Series Finale

Jada Buford_Charles Donalson III_Steve James - Getty - H 2018
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What is happening in Oak Park?

In the weeks since the Oct. 28 finale of Steve James' 10-part Starz docuseries America to Me, the Chicago-area school where it was filmed — Oak Park and River Forest High School — has seen a rash of racist incidents, including graffiti targeting one of the teachers featured.

On Friday, Nov. 2, the words "Fuck that dancing n—er Anthony Clark. White power," were found scrawled on campus alongside two swastikas. Clark, a special education teacher at the school, appeared in the series, which followed 12 racially diverse students through the 2015-16 academic year at OPRF as a means to examine the gap in academic achievement between black and white students that has persisted for decades at the affluent school in Chicago's easternmost western suburb.

The following Monday, the morning after an at-times-contentious community town hall hosted by The New York Times consisting of several panel discussions with filmmakers and parents, students and educators featured in the series, more racist and anti-Semitic graffiti was found in a girls' restroom at the school. That message — seemingly written in a different hand — read: "All n—ers must die. White power. Death to blacks, Muslims. Gas the Jews." It was also accompanied by swastikas. Finally, on Friday, Nov. 9, during a morning "Tribute to Excellence" assembly honoring notable alumni, yet another drawing of a swastika was sent to attendees using Apple's "AirDrop" feature. (Oak Park police announced yesterday that they'd charged a 14-year old OPRF student with dissemination of an obscene message. He's scheduled to appear in juvenile court on Wednesday.)

The disturbing messages prompted the school to hold an all-student assembly last Tuesday, followed by a community meeting Wednesday night. Students have also stepped up their advocacy in wake of the incidents, staging several protests — including at the Sunday night town hall — and circulating a petition with a list of demands including the hiring of more teachers of color, making black history courses required curriculum and implementing a plan to modify the school's discipline policies that disproportionately affect students of color. On Sunday, students and neighborhood residents participated in a "Unite Against Hate" march and rally where the speakers included Clark, also the founder of community activist organization the Suburban Unity Alliance.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Oak Park and graduated from OPRF. As such, I took a particular interest in America to Me and conducted a number of interviews with educators featured in the series during its run. I had interview James in January, following the premiere of the first five episodes in the Indie Episodic program at the Sundance Film Festival, but after the finale the director reached out, asking if I'd be interested in speaking again about how the community and school have been reacting to the national spotlight. The majority of this interview was conducted over email before the Times-sponsored town hall and accompanying protest and before any of the racist graffiti was discovered. I followed up with James by phone to ask about those developments.

So now that this has aired, what's up? What's the reaction been from the community?

The reaction has been significant, and as I expected, quite varied. Many people have embraced the series and are using it as a springboard for self-examination and frank conversations. Some people think the series has gone too far in being critical of the school and community. Others wish we had focused more on the white community. I don't disagree with that. Other people feel that wealthier, two-parent black families with higher-performing kids should have been more represented in the series. We didn't have many of those kinds of families come forward, despite seeking them out. And interestingly, we wanted to follow Gabe Townsell's family from the beginning but his parents had the mistaken impression that we were doing a promotional film for the school and they didn't want OPRF given credit for Gabe being a great and accomplished student.

How do the families feel about how they were portrayed? Have you heard anything from them about feedback they've received that's stuck out?

For the most part, all our families are very happy with their portrayal in the series and proud to have been a part of it. Those that pay attention to social media have at times been unhappy with some of the trolls and what I will charitably call the "misinformed criticism" that goes with that territory. But those responses have been dwarfed by people tweeting and posting about how courageous and inspiring they all are. And they've often been approached personally with praise. Even in places like Denver; L.A.; and Washington, D.C., where Jada [Buford, one of the students featured who has since graduated and is attending Howard University, which is located in D.C.], for example, was approached by admirers four times while she toured the Museum of African American History. Filmmakers love to hear those stories.

How is the school handling the attention? It does sound like in the years since the doc was filmed that equity-based policy changes are accelerating. 

I am encouraged by the new superintendent's energy and public statements in support of equity. And I know how much [OPRF school board president] Jackie Moore cares and is committed. But they have a big task ahead of themselves in turning such a large school in new directions, especially when it presently works so well for a majority of the white and wealthier families in the community. If not for the series being so much in the public eye right now, the big, passionate issue in the community might very well still be the pool. [A school board meeting featuring community members passionately for and against the plan to update the school's pool is one of the most "Oak Park" scenes in the whole doc].

How have the students and teachers received it?

What I'm hearing is that students are watching and talking about it if they get Starz. Interestingly, there have been a number of former white students who have posted that the series overplays the racial divisions at the school, saying, "That wasn't my experience there." Well, exactly. That's part of why we made the series. Among teachers, I think it’s been a more discouraging response. Paul Noble tells me that he thinks as many as a third of the teachers have chosen not to even watch it, and that the racial equity leadership within the school is following Principal [Nate] Rouse's lead in characterizing and dismissing the series as "coming from whiteness." Paul says that beyond the superintendent, many of the administrators in the school remain resistant to using the series in any kind of formal way. As Paul says, we have a documentary that's being embraced within dozens of schools districts around the country, but as of right now, will not be used within the very school that it profiles. Frankly, none of this surprises me. The equity leadership at OPRF has been ineffective for years, in part because people who should be working together are often working against one another because of petty differences. It's an affliction of the Left in this country. Equity work at OPRF has too often not been enough about serving kids, but about serving the authority and empowerment of its leaders. This is particularly ironic given that the foundation for the equity work in the school comes from the Pacific Educational Group's Courageous Conversations About Race program that they've been doing for years. Glenn Singleton, PEG's founder, loves the series and even showed an episode at the most recent national conference, attended by Principal Rouse and other school equity leaders.

What did you think when you found out about the graffiti targeting Anthony?

When the first [piece of graffiti] appeared I was hoping it was somebody coming in from outside Oak Park, but it's clear now that it's a student — or students — who are doing this. It's just fucking unbelievable. And the graffiti seems to me to reference the film. When [Clark] first appears in the series he's dancing with the kids.

That's what I was gonna ask. From where I sit it seems pretty obvious that the incidents are connected to America to Me, but wasn't sure if there were any local dynamics that I was missing. 

Yes it's connected to the series, and it's particularly connected to the ramped-up activism that has come out as a result of the series and has really escalated as the series has come to an end — and it's activism that I fully support. Students of color — and Anthony has been part of this, I think, without questions — have really become much more assertive in saying 'It's time for things to really change here.' That's my two cents. That they seem to be related, that someone has decided to push back on what's going on. All I can say is I am impressed with the fact that the students are so strong — all the students of color who are speaking up. And if that's flushing these assholes out in some way and they're feeling threatened to the point that they do terrible stuff like this, hopefully the good that will come of that is that will get really, truly exposed. [One of the parents of a student featured in America to Me] texted me yesterday that a friend of his said that he thought all the stuff that we say [in the series] about [rival high school] Hinsdale Central and people using the N-word against Oak Park athletes was all made up by us. Fabricated. And [the student's dad asked his friend], "Why do you think that?" And [the friend] said, "Because if [the filmmakers] had we would have heard it in the documentary. But they're just making all that up. I don't believe that happens." I mean (laughs). I think there are a lot of people in this community who don't want to believe that there are people that will do these things and have these attitudes and express them even if it's anonymous, like what's happening right now.

You wanted to respond to a few things that Principal Rouse said in his interview with me. He has stated that his initial concern about you, and the main reason he chose not to be interviewed for the doc, was your "lack of racial consciousness." Apart and aside from whether you think his concerns are genuine or not, do you get the sense that the people in town who have criticized him for not participating in the series are sympathetic to his argument? 

I’m sure there are some residents and teachers who clearly are. Some of his racial equity cohorts certainly are. We are living in a cultural and political moment when questions of authorship, and who gets to tell what stories in what communities, are front and center. And I think that’s incredibly important and necessary. And the way we made this docuseries is very sensitive to those very concerns. First of all, this is my community. I’m not an outsider. I’ve lived here for over 30 years. True, I’m not black or biracial, like most of the students we follow are. Which is why we put together a team of directors, producers and editors who reflect that diversity of age, gender and race. This was a hugely collaborative project and we all stand behind it. Over the years in my work, including America to Me, I’ve endeavored to tell the stories of people of color from inside their experiences and in their words, not mine. And with this docuseries, the black and biracial community has largely embraced us way more than the white community, which has frequently looked at what we are doing with skepticism and fear.

Listening to Nate, I was sympathetic to him in regard to his comments about, as a black principal, having to deal with the racial inequities in discipline that were just as prevalent 20 years ago when I was there and the admin was all white. Which is to say, I'm sympathetic to the larger argument that regardless of who the leaders are, the biggest impediment to actual change is the community attitudes about their kids, and what type of kid deserves what resources, what type of kid deserves to be in honors classes, what type of kid deserves to be punished for — to take Nate's example — parking a bus full of alcohol in front of the school during a dance!

I, too, am sympathetic to the fact that being a black principal here or anywhere in a dominant white community does not mean you can do all you want to do. And Anthony Clark makes that point in the series with regards to Nate. One of the ironies is, a lot of what he says in his interview with you he should have said in the series. It is very much in keeping with what the series is saying about the community.

I've remarked to several people that I wish this doc had gone to a streamer since not only does it strike me as bingeable, but also because maybe aside from ESPN's O.J.: Made in America, all the docuseries that have broken through into the national conversation recently have been on streaming services. Why did you choose to go with a week-to-week rollout for this?

Our best offer and most passionate suitor was Starz. They got the series and made a strong case that they were going to really promote it. And that they did. One prominent streaming candidate wanted us to break it into 30-minute episodes, then came back and said, “How about 20-minute episodes?” At that point we felt it would compromise the series creatively and passed. And because Made in America was such a success, I hoped we could have success too, even if not on that scale, because we are on premium cable, not ESPN. Starz has been a great partner, so no regrets there. And hopefully as it makes its way to streaming platforms, it will catch on more and get the wider audience it deserves.

During the run of America to Me, THR conducted a series of interviews with educators featured in the series including teachers Jessica Stovall, Anthony Clark, Paul Noble, Aaron Podolner, teacher/head wrestling coach Paul Collins, school board president Jackie Moore and principal Nate Rouse. Click here for another interview with director Steve James conducted in January, shortly after the series premiered at Sundance.