'America to Me' Director on Tackling Racial Inequality in American Schools

Hope Dreams and inset of  Steve James-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Starz Entertainment

'Hoop Dreams' helmer Steve James opens up about his Starz series and diving back into the hopes and realities of the Chicago school system, this time following students in a docuseries set in Oak Park, Ill.

Race and Chicago are not unfamiliar topics for Hoop Dreams director Steve James, but with his 2018 Starz docuseries America to Me, he tackles them in a new and perhaps unexpected way. Using a cinema verité approach, James, 64, follows students through a year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, an elite school in a Chicago suburb that, despite its progressive community, grapples with issues around race. What's revealed by seemingly mundane moments of students attending class and going to prom is that even in the most diverse neighborhoods, educators, students and families still struggle with the systematic ways in which minority students are disadvantaged.

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker spoke to THR about why he chose Oak Park, Illinois, as the setting for the film, how he selected his subjects and his process for dealing with one teacher's frustration at his portrayal.

How is America to Me similar to and different from your previous films?

It's similar in the sense that the style of storytelling is very much the kind of storytelling that I have done over the years, going all the way back to Hoop Dreams. Some ways in which it's different is in its ambition. We had this incredible team of filmmakers. There were three other directors involved in this project as segment directors: Kevin Shah, Rebecca Parish and Bing Liu. We amassed something like 1,400 hours of material over the course of a single school year.

How did you go about choosing your subjects?

We probably did 44 intake interviews with kids and their parents in the month leading up to the beginning of the school year. We interviewed a wide cross section of kids in terms of grade level, academic standing [and] life experiences. We initially selected seven kids to follow, with the understanding that we were going to pick up kids along the way. [Former assistant principal] Shayla Holland [stressed] the need to follow white kids. She [said] you can't really tell the story of equity in education without following the stories of white kids to understand how they view it, how they experience equity and how they experience education. I agreed with her in principle, but then it was like, how do we follow white kids with the goal of not just holding them up for ridicule as representatives of cluelessness?

Did you realize when filming that school board meetings were going to be so revealing?

Given the fact that both the principal and the superintendent refused to cooperate personally and allow us to follow them, [I knew] board meetings would be one of the primary places where we would be able to capture them in public and important settings and that we didn't need their permission to do it.

One teacher took issue with the inclusion of the coffee cup incident, during which he sniffs a black student's cup. To him, this action — which was included among a series of moments where he attempted to joke and relate with black students — wasn't related to race and just "made [him] look like an ass." Why show it?

It's not even a big dramatic moment in the relationship between Jada and that physics teacher, but it is an exemplary moment and I think has a lot to say [about] the ways in which that teacher — who, I think it must be said, is extremely well intentioned in so many ways — [is] really trying to grapple with how to engage with his African American students in a way that he sometimes erroneously feels is relatable. That coffee cup scene is a kind of perfect example of that, as well as some of the ways in which he would talk to her about her hair.

What made Oak Park your ideal place to examine racial inequity in the education system?

I went in with the intention of wanting to do a series that would examine how race inequity [plays] out in a place that we have not seen it played out in documentaries enough. It's not a poor school. It's not in a besieged neighborhood riddled with gang violence. It doesn't have all of those things that we have seen time and time again as explanations for inequities in education or racism.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.