A local high school is preparing to be in the national spotlight for the next 10 weeks around thorny issues of race and equity in education.
Filmmaker Steve James and a team from Kartemquin Films — who made the movie Hoop Dreams — spent the 2015-16 school year inside west suburban Oak Park and River Forest High School, known as one of the metro area’s most successful, diverse, and progressive schools.
This Sunday, their 10-part documentary series, America to Me, launches nationally on the Starz network — and exposes deep cracks in that perception, especially for black students.
The film offers an intimate view of what school looks like and feels like for black students. “Every activity, every assembly, everything is made for white kids,” a black Oak Park and River Forest student says in the first episode. “This school was made for white kids, because this country was made for white kids.”
The film’s title comes from a line in the 1936 Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again” that reads “(America never was America to me).”
James, who lives in Oak Park and sent his children to the high school, said at a recent screening he thought Oak Park provided a microcosm of America — “at least a liberal version of America, but a liberal version of America that was still failing.”
“I think there’s an assumption that if you’re living in a place like Oak Park and you’re a black kid or a biracial kid, then everything should be fine,” James said. “And that’s not true. …”
“It’s simpler to look at schools that are in totally besieged communities with no funding and say, ‘Well, I can see why things are failing there.’ It’s tougher when you look at a place like Oak Park. But I think it’s important that we do that.”
The documentary exposes deep race-based separation within the integrated school, and examines everything from the number of black students in advanced classes to segregated cheerleading teams.
Filmmaker Kevin Shaw also worked on the documentary; he followed three of the 12 kids featured. “I hope that this series shatters stereotypes about black life — about black family life, about single-parent households,” he said. He hopes it leads to “true meaningful conversations about race.”
The school, which initially opposed letting the filmmakers in, is now embracing the series as a way to spark conversation and change. They’re hosting free public screenings and discussions for every episode, starting this Sunday.
“It’ll be rough because having conversations about race are extremely difficult,” said JoyLynn Pruitt-Adams, the school district’s superintendent. “But I also think it’s gonna be a good 10 weeks.”