'America to Me': TV Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Starz
Well on its way to being one of the year's best.
1/23/2018

Steve James' entertaining, challenging 10-part docuseries about students at a suburban Chicago public school is coming to Starz.

Let the movie studios fight to acquire the most-talked-about project at Sundance. In snagging Steve James' 10-hour documentary series America to Me, Starz may have acquired the Sundance property most likely to instigate important conversation throughout the year.

The first five hours of America to Me screened at Sundance this week as part of the festival's inaugural Indie Episodic program and, like James' features, it's a meaty examination of race and class and how the two affect a person's chances at achieving the American Dream — the rare project that forces viewers to distinguish between equity and equality.

Lest that sound too much like homework — and most of the characters in American To Me hate homework — it's also an entertaining and carefully woven story of contemporary high school, with enough sports, first love, outcasts, popular kids, dances, drama and generational discord in suburban Chicago that it could be a John Hughes movie, if John Hughes had made movies with majority African-American casts.

America to Me isn't a tragic story of failing students in a failing school in a failing part of the city. It's much more complicated than that, a look at well-intentioned teachers, eager students with a variety of extra-curricular and academic aspirations, supportive and hard-working parents, and the places they succeed and the reasons they sometimes fail.

In 2015, James went to Chicago's Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) and, after heated conversations with faculty, administrators and the school board, got permission to follow a group of students around for a full year. With 3,400 students, 55 percent white, OPRF has the reputation as a bastion of progressive diversity in action. But anecdotal evidence and test scores points to a persistent achievement gap between the schools black and white students.

On a technical level alone, America to Me is astounding. There are a dozen students being followed around to classrooms and homes, embedded at every wrestling practice, after-school tutoring session and slam poetry rehearsal, plus cameras placed around the school, occasionally providing attractive nuisances for student pranks in the hallways. Bing Liu (director of the standout Minding the Gap), Rebecca Parrish and Kevin Shaw serve as what the production is calling "segment directors," and James leads a three-person editing team, maintaining small and large character arcs and Big Issue themes.

The kids are great, each subject a mixture of clever and thoughtful and hilariously immature, whether they know it or not. One episode may focus on Kendale, a gifted writer trying to balance his predominantly white friends in the marching band and his black friends on the wrestling team, compensating for occasional lack of academic effort with a big personality. The next might find more seriousness in the story of Terence, dealing with learning disabilities and trying to live up to the expectations of his mother, who passionately believes he can make it in college. We see the maturation of freshman Grant, who comes in as shy and geeky and blossoms with theater and possible romance. There's verbose mama's boy Charles, stressed and self-questioning Chanti, and there's Jada, an aspiring filmmaker herself. The focus is predominantly on African-American and biracial students, which begins to be explained by the fifth episode.

Race is definitely the main hook in America to Me, which raises questions like what does it mean for a school to be diverse, but still segregated? What is the difference between overt racism and a situation in which cheerleaders' and drill team's placement in the football stadium takes on a racial dimension? Is the white physics teacher who likes to "racialize" conversations to engage his black students and has written an elaborate mini-memoir of his own experiences with race doing more harm than good? But James and company do well to vary the focus whenever America to Me risks becoming too single-minded.

After five episodes, I was invested in whether Kendale would get his weight down so that he could wrestle at 195 pounds. I was worried about Chanti's stress levels and mysterious references to a bad ex-boyfriend. I was hoping for more scenes of Grant stressing out about text messages to the girl he likes. And I was cheering for Jada's own film projects. Each kid's home life had been established, parents introduced with their own stories, and the series had also spent time with teachers and coaches, though the school's principal was opposed to the series and only features in the background.

America to Me has a charming awareness of its own series-hood, and the kids are generally media savvy, to varying degrees. That can mean a kid signing autographs and using the crew to get special bleacher access during a football game, or it can mean somebody saying derisively "It's gonna be like Jersey Shore." The show doesn't pretend teens today are growing up without full awareness of what reality TV looks like, and America to Me doesn't pretend not to be reality TV in its own way. It's reality TV in the best sense of the term, and I suspect that America to Me will end up being one of the year's best shows of any kind.

Director: Steve James

Segment directors: Bing Liu, Rebecca Parrish and Kevin Shaw

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