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Documentary Shows How Even Progressive High Schools Can Lack Equity

‘America to Me’ filmmakers discuss how they gained students’, school’s trust.

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When journalist Pete Keeley watched the critically acclaimed 10-part documentary “America to Me,” he was struck by how little the school at the center of the story had changed since he attended it.

The 2018 documentary series follows the lives of a dozen students during the 2015-16 academic year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, a large, diverse school in a progressive suburb just outside Chicago. It explores the many ways that attending an integrated school doesn’t mean that all students are getting an equal education.

In the series, Keeley noted, the school’s mostly white drill team performs front and center during halftime shows, while the mostly African-American cheerleading team is relegated to the side. Students of color are tracked to regular classes, while white students fill the advanced ones.

“For 20 years, to claim ignorance, like ‘Oh, I never even noticed’” was just not credible, said Keeley, who covered the series for The Hollywood Reporter, during a recent EWA panel about the making of the documentary.

Steve James, a longtime resident of Oak Park whose own children attended the school, directed the series, along with a diverse group of filmmakers: Kevin Shaw, Bing Liu and Rebecca Parrish. Hiring directors of different ages and races, James said, helped build connections with the students and school staff. The filmmakers also showed the subjects their scenes before they aired. The documentary team had the final say about what to include, James said, but they did make some changes to address the feedback they heard.

“Our goal is to tell these stories as honestly and intimately as we can, but also empathically,” said James, who is best known for his award-winning 1994 documentary, “Hoop Dreams.” “We want you to watch people, even people who are difficult or make decisions that you think are wrong… [and] come to understand how they made those decisions.”

The documentary has drawn significant media attention, including pieces in The New York TimesWBEZ, and Slate. It also has sparked some controversy among some community members at town hall events after episodes of the series were shown, including charges that it focused too much on the experience of African-American students.

Here are some of the key takeaways James and Shaw, a co-director, shared about making the series during the discussion at EWA’s November 2019 seminar on pathways to college and careers:

On getting white subjects to participate

James made the early mistake of thinking the documentary would center around African-American students, he said, while white students would feature as their friends and classmates. That was until an assistant principal told James that if he wanted to tell a story about equity, he had to tell the story of white students, too.

But then James made another error, he said. He thought that as a white filmmaker, he’d have an easy time recruiting white students and families to be in the film. But by that time, word had spread that the series would explore issues of race and equity in education, and many potential white subjects declined to participate, fearing they’d be “held up as an example of white privilege.”

“The fact that so many of these white members of the community were like ‘No way, I’m not going to be in a series like that,’ just shows the incredible cautiousness and fear, which can be incredibly paralyzing in liberal communities when it comes to really grappling with these issues,” James said. “What I’ve often seen is you have people of color in those communities who are ready and willing to engage on these issues, and you have white people who will stay quiet… because they’re afraid they might say something and be perceived as racist.”

On telling a more balanced story

As they were filming, Shaw realized the documentary team wasn’t following any high-achieving black students. Shaw, who is black, pushed to include that perspective, he said, because he knew it would be crucial to telling a representative story.

Early on, a student named Gabe was identified as a good candidate, but initially his family didn’t want him to participate, Shaw said. Gabe had a schedule packed with advanced coursework and wrestling, and his father didn’t want anything to derail him. Gabe’s family also feared that the filmmakers weren’t going to take a critical enough look at the school’s racial inequities. But the family eventually agreed after seeing how Shaw had built a relationship with one of Gabe’s wrestling teammates.

One of the hardest parts of telling Gabe’s story, Shaw said, was a lack of access to his classes. The filmmakers asked individual teachers for permission to film inside their classrooms, but none of Gabe’s teachers granted it.

“They know that the optics don’t look good because Gabe is [one of] only one or two students of color that are in these honors and AP classes,” Shaw said. “That fragility, that fear, that hesitancy, that caution — it exists at every level, not just in the community, but even in the classroom with these teachers.”

On getting access to the school — and the fallout

Administrators didn’t want to grant the filmmakers permission to film in the school, but the locally elected school board ultimately approved the project. It helped that many school board members were relatively new, so they didn’t feel responsible for how the school was run in the past, James said. And some had campaigned on wanting to address racial inequities.

The filmmakers had to meet weekly with the school’s administrators — which “became increasingly contentious as the year went on,” James said — and faced regular pushback. To get around this, the filmmakers often asked the school board for help. Administrators also could not block the film crew from filming public meetings.

The schools superintendent resigned during the filming and the school principal resigned after the series aired. The  school district also hired an equity director. And while the school hasn’t done away with tracking yet, it’s going to try that with its freshman class in two years. Student activism has also been on the rise.

“I think the series had something to do with that, but in no way [was] the catalyst,” James said. “I think the students are just sick and tired of the talk that’s been going on there for decades and they’re just being much more forceful.”