Doc Filmmaker Steve James on How Race, Privilege Affect Education

America to Me Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Starz

The Oscar nominee for 'Abacus: Small Enough to Jail' talks about his ambitious new project 'America to Me,' which follows 12 diverse students through a year at an elite Chicago-area high school.

Steve James — the acclaimed documentary filmmaker behind Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters and current Oscar nominee Abacus: Small Enough to Jail — didn't need much of a travel budget for his latest project, America to Me.

James, who's lived in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park for over 30 years, usually requires $2.50 for the CTA Green Line into the city at least, but in 2015 he found a worthy subject within walking distance.

The director, along with three close collaborators dubbed "segment directors" in the credits — Bing Liu, Rebecca Parrish and Kevin Shaw — followed 12 diverse teenagers through an entire school year at Oak Park and River Forest High School for an ambitious 10-part docuseries that examines how race and economic privilege affect education.

OPRF also happens to be my alma mater (go Huskies), so naturally I was curious …

I would describe OPRF as the closest real-life analog to a typical sitcom public high school — in a good way. It is racially diverse (its 3,400 students break down as follows: 55 percent white, 27 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian and 6 percent multiracial), economically diverse (housing stock runs the gamut from small apartments to Frank Lloyd Wright masterworks to, in the more affluent River Forest, giant mansions built by Chicago's illustrious Mafiosi), extremely well-funded (Illinois does love its taxes) and picturesque (at least from some angles). 

It was all those factors and more that led James to identify it as an institution well suited to explore his favored subjects of race and class. More specifically, it was the institution's decades-long struggle to address the gap in educational achievement between its black and white students, a gap that, despite the best efforts of its teachers, administrators and parents, has only widened in recent years.

James first began thinking about OPRF as ripe for doc treatment when his own children — now all in their mid- to late 20s — attended the school. But he put it out of mind, thinking there was little chance the administration would ever agree to it. However, after mentioning his idea in a 2014 interview with local paper The Wednesday Journal, John Condne, the school's media teacher, reached out and suggested he approach the school board instead.

Condne's instincts were correct, as the school board eventually voted 6-1 in favor, despite objections from the superintendent and principal.

In the spring of 2015 — during the period where James and his colleagues were seeking to persuade the board — controversy over OPRF's decision to hold a Black Lives Matter assembly open only to students of color became a national story. Much of the coverage — even setting aside the predictable reaction from portions of the right-wing media — was negative in tenor, offering little in the way of context, which frustrated many teachers and administrators. "I think frankly, because of the controversy around all that, it actually ended up being beneficial to the decision to allow the film to go forward," says James, "because there was a feeling that we would treat all these kinds of things in a much more thorough and nuanced and responsible way than the way the media typically does."

Jeff Skoll's Participant Media agreed to finance the docuseries, which seems directly in line with their mandate to fund projects that "inspire and compel social change."

“Steve is an exquisite filmmaker who tells stories from the heart with subtlety, passion and beauty." says Diane Weyermann, president of documentary film and television for Participant. "The opportunities the Oak Park and River Forest High School students receive are quite remarkable, yet the challenges and reality they face are, at times, crushing. By shining a light on these issues, Steve and his team created a vital piece of storytelling with purpose and heart.”

The first five episodes premiered at Sundance last week in the new Indie Episodic section (read The Hollywood Reporter's review here). Rights to the series were acquired by Starz, which is planning a fall premiere.

THR caught up with James while he was still in Park City to discuss the making of the doc, how he hopes it will contribute to the conversation on race and education in America, and how our progressive suburb might react to the national spotlight.

So this documentary is already of pretty great interest among my friends. I really enjoyed watching it. I mean aside from just the general baseline nostalgic pleasure of having someone make a documentary about your high school 20 years after you graduate, what struck me was how much hasn't changed over that time.

(Laughs.) Yeah.

Could you talk a little bit about how OPRF first came on your radar as a possible subject for a documentary?

Oak Park — as you know, having come from there — is a community that is a kind of magnet for liberal folks, especially liberals with kids who don't want to deal with the whole Chicago public school system and also want to have their kids grow up in a more diverse environment than some of the other suburbs of Chicago. When my kids got to the high school is when I first had the idea that it would be interesting to do a film set there that would look at race in the community, and look at education, because people in that community, you know, for decades have been wringing their hands over some of these issues. There have been a lot of documentaries made in poor public high schools in besieged neighborhoods, underfunded schools, threats of gang violence. And some of my work, I've been in such schools. And I always thought that it would be interesting to examine a place where a lot of those things aren't going on, where it was well-funded, where there's a very liberal will around race and pride around diversity. And the other piece of it for me personally was that a lot of the films that I have done that relate to the black community have taken place in those very poor neighborhoods, have looked at people in tough situations. And I think this is a particular moment in time in our society where there is more awareness of wanting to tell other kinds of stories about the black experience and the biracial experience than what we have mostly focused on, which is those kinds of stories of poverty and despair and gang violence.

Do you recall why the principal and superintendent were against the project?

I think in essence some of this opposition had to do with a feeling that we couldn't possibly get at the complexity of what goes on around achievement and that the hard work that the institution does daily around that would be boring. They also had concerns about the kids, that we might exploit the kids in some way. And I think there was some genuineness to it, but I also thought that it was a sort of — if you're opposed to something, it's a great argument to make, to say, "Well, I'm more worried about the kids than anything," on their behalf. But once the school board voted to let us in, at that point the principal and superintendent could have chosen to at least let us interview them about what they're doing [to address the achievement gap], if not let us follow them around, and neither one of them ever agreed, despite repeated requests, to even sit down for an interview.

How did you go about picking the students that you follow in the series?

So that was an interesting process because the administration made it clear to us that for legal/confidentiality reasons, we couldn't go to teachers and ask for recommendations of students to approach. So we put out the word in the community, on social media, through parents and people we know because we live there, and then that led to some people coming forward. What was true is that we worked it out that if a teacher thought someone was an interesting student, they could talk to that student [about reaching] out to us instead of us reaching out to them. So it came in different ways, but a big part of it was wanting to find kids that represented a cross section — initially a cross section of black and biracial kids — a cross section of grade levels, educational tracking levels and experiences; two-parent homes, single-parent homes; personalities: quiet kids, boisterous kids; kids who were into sports, kid who were not into sports. So we really tried to be conscious about all that stuff. And then of course because Oak Park is such a magnet for biracial families — the community has something like six times the national average of biracial families — we absolutely wanted to make sure that we had biracial kids in the mix, and that we didn't just have black-white biracial kids. So we started out, and initially I was not thinking [about following] white kids because of the nature of what this is about. And it was, as I say in the film, [former OPRF vice principal] Chala Holland who said that we needed to follow white kids too [in order to get a full picture of how race relates to achievement]. And that's when we began the process that we talk about in episode five that ended up taking considerably longer than I thought it would be because there was this word that got out in the community, and I heard it from many corridors, that white parents were concerned about the film as it related to showing white kids, that we were looking to hold them up for ridicule. And in a really liberal community like Oak Park, white people can be incredibly sensitive and concerned about how they're perceived as it relates to race. They don't want to say the wrong thing or be perceived as doing the wrong thing. So I think that that made it hard for us to find viable candidates. For instance, we didn't get one white family from River Forest that was interested. We didn't get any families that were really quite wealthy that were interested because I think they were like, "Oh, well I know how they'll portray us."

Oh yeah.

And again, no one said that directly to me, but it was definitely a vibe in the community around this film. But I'm really happy with the two [white] kids we ended up following. I think they have great stories and they contributed tremendously to the series as it goes on, especially in the second half of the series. But yeah, it was difficult.

I assume that your kids, having graduated from OPRF, took an interest in this project, as I have.

Yes. (Laughs.)

Did your kids bring any insight to this?

So Jackson, my youngest son, worked with me some on this project. And there was one teacher he really recommended that we include in the series, who in fact shows up in part two organically, but I was determined to find a way to get him in because he was an excellent teacher, a black teacher who my son had, he took African-American history from. And I think it was the only teacher he had at Oak Park that he ever said to us, like, "Hey, I really like this teacher and this class." We almost fell out of our chairs when he said it.

And the thing is is that our kids had some varying experiences. Because one of our kids was an extremely high achiever, one of our kids had some issues around ADD that caused him to have a very different experience. So even as white parents, my wife and I saw our kids have very different experiences at that school that very much informed the decision to want to do the film. And it's been great to show them what we've been up to, and they have commented on it and been a good bellwether for what that experience is, the ways in which it rang true for them. I mean they had a similar experience to you, which is they were stuck by how much the same it is, how yes the lunchroom is less segregated than it was when they were there but it's still pretty segregated.

What surprised you about this process? Was there things that were shocking to you, good and bad?

Yes. One was just, I'm surprised at the level of actual overt racism that still goes on in this day and age in the high schools. And in this case, you know, I'm surprised — and maybe I shouldn't be — that some of the football teams in the conference and the [surrounding] communities are still very white, that they would engage in racial taunting on the football field, and I understand in wrestling as well, which is just kind of phenomenal to me. And that it would even be tolerated at those schools — because they know it's going on. The coaches, they know. So that was shocking. And then things like the school's sometimes inability to act decisively. It's a large school, and there is a lot of bureaucracy surrounding that school and the way in which it operates that I think mitigates against dynamic change. And that's not a shock — but I feel like we really did see that. On a more positive side, I was really amazed at just how thoughtful and insightful many of the kids were when it comes to issues of race and identity and this community. I grew up in a diverse environment and I went to a diverse high school, but I certainly was not thinking about these things and grappling with them in any kind of meaningful, thoughtful way. And these kids, they really are. And they have a lot to offer and a lot to say about it and a lot of passion around it.

You followed these kids during the 2015 school year, so Trump was not even on the radar —

We followed through June of 2016. He was certainly making a case and he was a force to be reckoned with at that point. But it wasn't just Trump. It was the Laquan McDonald murder that happened during that school year, what went on in Ferguson the previous year. There was a lot going on in the culture around the treatment of black people. If we were following them now with Trump as president, I'm sure we would feel even more of what's been going on, but it was still pretty present in the environment and in the country.

What do you hope that the impact of this project will be when it gets released — and what do you think it will be, if you think it will be different than what you hope?

I don't want to hazard about what I think it will be because it's hard to know. I hope that it's part of engaging people. There's a lot of dialogue around issues of race in this country that I hope that this contributes to in a significant way, and as it relates to young people, and as it relates to people in liberal communities, and looking at issues of privilege and change and how this change happens and what prevents change from happening. I also desperately hope that this can find its way to young people, because I really feel like young people seeing this — and I'm not just talking about black and biracial young people, I'm talking about everyone — I feel like it's a series that can have a lot to say and articulate a lot of things that young people are grappling with today. That is my hope. Whether all that will happen or not, who knows. That'll depend on a lot of factors that are out of my control.

What do you think will happen in Oak Park?

Oh God. OK. I think it's gonna be really good for the community. I think it'll be tough in some ways, because there's some tougher stuff to come in the second half of the series. But I think one thing that we had gone to great pains to do is to show that there is a lot of good going on in that school. There's a lot of dedicated teachers, there's people who really are serious about change and want to make it a better school — and you can see the ways in which it is a great school. So yeah, this isn't some simple takedown on Oak Park and River Forest High School at all. We want it to be a complex and fair look at the school and this environment. And I feel confident that many people in the community will find much to take away from it that will help inform the process there that they have struggled with, that we in that community have struggled with for a long, long time.

So just real quick, on Abacus, first of all congratulations: This is the first time that you've been nominated in the doc category, is that correct?

Yeah, yeah I was nominated as an editor for Hoop Dreams.

Right. So what do you think it is, if anything, about Abacus that broke through?

First of all, I think Abacus is the Little Engine That Could-kind of film in terms of all this. Because we didn't make it for a lot of money, and we didn't have some big campaign to get it nominated. So I think what happened with that film is that people in the doc branch — because that's the only people that have voted now, thus far — I think within the doc branch there was a feeling that it was a really important story. I think they think it was a well-told story, and it's a kind of infuriating story of the nonequal application of justice. It makes you mad. But at the same time this family is so inspirational and lovely and funny. I think people just really appreciate them so much. That has really helped the film's reception as well.