“America to Me” sparks a national conversation

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OPRF student Kendale McCoy

OPRF student Kendale McCoy

“White people have to
more than just think
that it’s okay to
not act in a racist way …
they actually have to
actively do something”

Director Steve James

America to Me explores a national crisis, but that’s just the beginning. The ten-part docuseries, premiering August 26 on the Starz Network, is a call to action.

Covering a yearlong stretch in the lives of a dozen students from Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF), it begins with a montage in an educational institution that is recognized as one of the most progressive in the nation.

During the sequence, a handful of African American kids explain why they attended a Black Lives Matter forum that the school hosted exclusively for them, while a few uninvited whites say that they may have wanted to go.

Racial issues appear throughout the first two episodes — which Chicago-based production company Kartemquin Films screened for an audience at AMC River East on Tuesday night.

In one scene, an administrator declares that, “We are failing our kids every day.” In another, the narrator informs viewers that the school’s principal and dean refused to participate in the film.

 
AMERICA TO ME OFFICIAL TRAILER | STARZ DOCUSERIES

 

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Director Steve James, on hand for a Q&A after the Tuesday-night screening, said that part of his motivation for making the film was to “understand fundamentally how this community was failing.”

A long-time Oak Park resident and father of three OPRF graduates, he described his hometown as “this incredibly liberal community with an extremely well-funded public school system.” But he also recalled that, “the community, for literally decades, had been wringing its hands over the fact that it didn’t seem to be making a big difference in the inequities of achievement between white students and black students.”

After completing the series and admitting that, “I was remarkably ignorant,” he realized that his work had just begun.

“If things are going to change, white people across the board in many ways have to more than just think that it’s okay to not act in a racist way,” he said. “They actually have to actively do something.”

Anthony Kaufman, Steve James, Kevin Shaw, Jessica Stovall, and Tiara Oliphant discuss "America to Me" at the AMC Theater, August 14, 2018
Anthony Kaufman, Steve James, Kevin Shaw, Jessica Stovall, and Tiara Oliphant discuss “America to Me” at the AMC Theater, August 14, 2018

James was part of a panel on Tuesday night that included Jessica Stovall, a former OPRF teacher who factors strongly into the first two episodes of America To Me.

When filming began, Stovall had just returned from a year abroad conducting “really intensive research” into school systems that had overcome racial issues similar to the ones facing OPRF. But in a scene where she presents her findings to school administrators, the response is “crickets.”

“Some of my biggest support actually came from the film crew,” she told the audience on Tuesday night. “I put in three more years after filming and things continued to progressively get worse, which was what led to my decision to leave.”

Stovall is now pursuing a PhD in Education at Stanford University.

The situation borders on a crisis, no doubt. But Participant Media is working to alleviate the symptoms.

Participant, credited alongside Kartemquin as the production company for America to Me, helps create audience engagement through entertainment that brings social awareness. It has developed a campaign called “America to me: real talk” that will complement every episode of the series with a discussion guide for watch groups across the country. The company also plans to screen individual episodes and conduct follow-up discussions in ten cities across the nation, including a Chicago event on October 26.

After watching the first two episodes, however, it seems that finding a cure requires massive input from the students who are actually living through the dysfunction that has been thrust upon them.

Fortunately, the kids in America To Me are awesome. Charismatic, funny, and articulate, they work for academic success and plan for the future while remaining totally self-aware. They also take James and his crew everywhere, from classrooms and hallways to cheerleading and football practice and even into their own homes.

The resulting scenes of high school kids waking up at 5:30 in the morning to lose weight for the wrestling team or writing poetry to address highly personal issues are an immense dose of hope.

Along the way, the OPRF students offer and accept their own opinions about race without malice or resentment. They make all kinds of white-kids-do-this and black-kids-do-that observations that effectively enhance the discussion.

If these kids lead us into the future, we might just be okay after all.

CREDITS
Production Companies
   Participant Media
   Kartemquin Films

Distributors
   Starz! (2018) (World-wide) (all media)

Special Effects
   Nolo Digital Film (color post-production)

Directed by
   Steve James
   Bing Liu — (segment director)
   Rebecca Parrish — (segment director)
   Kevin Shaw — (segment director)

Produced by
   John Condne — series producer
   Steve James — executive producer
   Justine Nagan — executive producer
   Gordon Quinn — executive producer
   Risé Sanders-Weir — series producer
   Jeff Skoll — executive producer
   Janea Smith — co-producer
   Stephanie Rae Smith — associate producer
   Betsy Steinberg — executive producer
   Diane Weyermann — executive producer

Cinematography by
   Steve James
   Bing Liu
   Rebecca Parrish
   Kevin Shaw

Film Editing by
   Rubin Daniels Jr. — associate editor
   Steve James
   Alanna Schmelter — co-editor
   Leslie Simmer
   David E. Simpson

Art Department
   Aireen Arellano — graphic designer
   Mark A. Lofgren — motion graphics and animation
   Dan Sharkey — graphics

Sound Department
   Patrick Bresnahan — sound recordist
   Alan Chow — sound recordist
   Nick Clemente — sound recordist
   John Fecile — sound recordist
   Ashley Alysa France — sound recordist
   Derek Hanson — sound recordist
   Josh Hunnicut — sound effects editor
   Hayden Jackson — sound recordist
   Tim Konn — executive producer
   Doug Mara — sound recordist
   John Mathie — sound recordist
   Alex Paguirigan — sound effects editor
   Zak Piper — sound recordist
   Richard K. Pooler — sound recordist
   Mike Regan — sound effects editor
   Louise Rider — producer
   Doug Ryan — sound recordist
   Bennett Spencer — sound recordist
   Logan Vines — sound effects editor
   Drew Weir — supervising sound designer/re-recording mixer
   Shuling Yong — sound recordist

Visual Effects by
   Joe Flanagan — producer
   Michael Matusek — colorist
   Elliot Rudmann — colorist

Camera and Electrical Department
   Drew Angle — additional cinematography
   Tom Callahan — drone footage
   Cosmo Coffey — additional cinematography
   Jackson James — additional cinematography
   Dana Kupper — additional cinematography
   Darryl Parham — additional cinematography
   Adam Singer — additional cinematography
   Keith Walker — additional cinematography

Editorial Department
   Rubin Daniels Jr. — post-production coordinator
   Ryan Gleeson — technical supervisor
   Norvin Leeper — assistant editor
   Alanna Schmelter — post-production supervisor
   Boris Seagraves — additional color

Music Department
   Joshua Abrams — music by / music recorded by / musician
   Yaw Agyeman — musician
   Nick Broste — music recorded by / musician
   Jocelyn Michelle Brown — music supervisor
   Soma Ems — mixed by
   Marquis Hill — musician
   Dawn Sutter Madell — music supervisor
   John McEntire — mixed by
   Jeff Parker — musician
   Teddy Rankin-Parker — musician
   James Sanders — musician
   Shape Shoppe — music recorded by

Other crew
   Max Asaf — for: Kartemquin Films
   Jack Bauhs — student filmmakers
   Meryam Bouadjemi — production support
   Brian Branand — student filmmakers
   Abbie Brasch — production support
   Jada Buford — student filmmakers
   Zach Cargie — student filmmakers
   Lourdes Contreras — student filmmakers
   Andrea De Fraga — finance officer for: Kartemquin Films
   Jay Faulkner — student filmmakers
   Michael Filek — student filmmakers
   Lauren Flowers — student filmmakers
   Blake Griffin — production support
   Derik S. Hines — production assistant / production support
   Tim Horsburgh — communications and distribution officer for: Kartemquin Films
   Marriah Kern — for: Kartemquin Films
   Joanna Lakatos — development officer for: Kartemquin Films
   Liam Loughran — student filmmakers
   Julia Martin — for: Kartemquin Films
   Nancy McDonald — for: Kartemquin Films
   Viorica Mereuta — for: Kartemquin Films
   Ashley Mills — production support
   Jim Morrisette — technical officer for: Kartemquin Films
   Suzanne Niemoth — for: Kartemquin Films
   Eileen O’Donnell — production support
   Toni Reed — production support
   Ingrid Roettgen — for: Kartemquin Films
   Rachel Rozycki — production support
   Simone Scott — student filmmakers
   Beckie Stocchetti — for: Kartemquin Films
   Anthony Stoll — for: Kartemquin Films
   Emily Strong — for: Kartemquin Films / production support
   Stephanie Sunata — production support
   Veronica Thomas — student filmmakers
   Pedro Urgiles — for: Kartemquin Films
   Mimi Wilcox — production support

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  • Verity

    Thanks for this hopeful article. I have watched it now twice through completely, some episodes more. I was left with a swirl of so many feelings. OPRF doesn’t seem much different from my own high school experience as an African American student and not much different a generation later in the local schools in my liberal progressive county. Because of my varied and diverse interests, I delved into many subjects and a few school activities. I was a very good student, but it didn’t yield me many friends, not with the students of color because I was academic, and certainly not with the majority white students. I have never gone back, and never attended a high school reunion. I wasn’t their classmate. I was the shadow they moved around while they lived their high school years full of jollity punctuated by occasional sadness, real or imagined. I have worked for many years to remove barriers for students of color so they are able to have greater access to more rigor, earlier, and excel in school. But frankly, I’m not seeing the ‘better’ in our communities. Structural bias and racism are as entrenched as ever. OPRF Black and White students live differently tracked lives and that doesn’t seem to about to change. I do wonder if this article was written by a white or Black person, and would they be as hopeful if they were Black? The docuseries is not diminished in the least if you are not left with hope. It just tells the story, a truth most would rather not see or acknowledge.