Most documentaries aim to stun audiences by building up to revelations that will explode preconceptions wide open. Often, they focus on a single catastrophic or otherwise pivotal event — a war, a movement, a victory — in order to reveal its ripple effects. But “America to Me” succeeds by taking a quieter, slyly bruising approach in order to match the timbre of its fraught subject material, portraying how intersections of race, class and privilege become grueling everyday realities. It’s a slower burn, but it proves no less searing.
Director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and his team followed several black and biracial students throughout a full year at Oak Park and River Forest High, a competitive public school nestled in a Chicago suburb. The school prides itself on being liberal and diverse, but it nonetheless doesn’t understand how to best serve its non-white population. White teachers are shocked to hear their black and biracial students experience the kind of outright racism that literally announces itself to their faces. Take the football team, whose members regularly get slurs spit at them by all-white competitors as an “intimidation tactic.”
But for the most part, “America to Me” tries to untangle the more surreptitious knots of implicit bias. It shines a light on the constant obstacles black and biracial kids face just by virtue of how white people perceive them — not to mention the blindspots of well-meaning white liberals who balk whenever anyone suggests they’re not paragons of progressive virtue.
In order to show how deep and banal the problems have become, “America to Me” embeds itself with students, teachers, and parents at Oak Park and beyond. There’s Tiara, a cheerleading sophomore with a huge smile and bigger dreams; Ke’Shawn, a wisecracking junior who meets his teachers’ frustration with a practiced shrug; Kendale, a senior torn between his black wrestling friends and white marching bandmates. Chanti finds a way to express her rawest feelings about everything from gender fluidity to a toxic relationship through spoken word. Withdrawn Terence finds solace in the folds of his hoodie; Charles, in music so loud it drowns out anyone trying to grab his attention .
Their parents come from a wide range of backgrounds, but are united in their desire to see their kids succeed — which is why, as they say with varying degrees of enthusiasm, they made sure to place them in Oak Park. All of them grapple with what it means to raise black or biracial kids at Oak Park, and to have them go to a school where the white teachers insist they “understand their experience” while the black teachers have to toe a constantly shifting line.
Sometimes, it’s hard not to wonder what “America to Me” — which is, after all, helmed by a white man — might look like if directed by someone who did understand the kids’ experience, such as their biracial English teacher, whose frustration and empathy radiates from the screen. What would it have looked like if the kids were speaking to people whose lives hewed closer to their own? What would make the final cut?
It’s impossible to say for sure what would have changed — and to be fair, this isn’t exactly a new set of questions for documentaries by people trying to understand experiences they never had. And to its credit, “America to Me” largely avoids the trap of making any single person stand for some grand truth. Instead, each episode use the downright astonishing amount of time and access they’re granted to show us the larger context of its subjects’ lives, shading out the full breadth of their experiences — their pasts, presents, potential futures — to reveal an undeniable bigger picture of how racial bias functions in America. As all the pieces of its subjects’ lives come together, “America to Me” takes on the extraordinary task of showing how intersections of race, class, and privilege become grueling, everyday realities.
It’s impossible to say for sure — and to be fair, this isn’t exactly a new conundrum for those trying to document situations they’ve never lived through themselves. “America to Me,” mostly avoids the trap of making any single person stand for some grand truth. Instead, the series uses its astonishing amount of time and access to show the larger context of its subjects’ lives, shading in the full breadth of their struggles — past, present and potential future — to reveal an undeniable bigger picture of how racial bias functions in America.
Showing an isolated racist comment is one thing; revealing how deeply racism is embedded in our culture, even in places that say they recognize it, is another, much harder task that “America to Me” tackles with patience, compassion and most crucially, a willingness to let its subjects speak for themselves.
Docu-series, 60 minutes. Premieres August 26 at 9 pm on Starz.
Crew: Executive producers: Steve James, Justine Nagan, Gordon Quinn, Jeff Skoll, Betsy Steinberg, Diane Weyermann.
Cast: Brendan Barrette, Diane Barrios-Smith, Jada Buford, Charles Donalson, Caroline Robling-Griest, Ke’Shawn Kumsa, Grant Lee, Kendale McCoy, Terrence Moore, Tiara Oliphant, Chanti Relf, Gabriel Townsell, Jessica Stoval.