There is a myth that simple diversity (say, hiring one person of color or introducing a queer character to a franchise) is, in and of itself, a solution. But often, the problem then expands: a lack of follow-through, an inability to understand their needs, a reluctance to make the entire environment more welcoming — all of which contributes to further alienation and frustration. This is something that I thought of often while watching America To Me, Starz’s powerful new docuseries that, over the course of a year, follows “one of the country’s highest performing and diverse public schools.” The school is technically diverse, yes, but the series digs deeper into the surrounding issues, most notably the inherent racial inequality within the education system.
The 10-part series, directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), follows a handful of black and biracial students who attend Chicago area’s Oak Park and River Forest High School and, throughout, the students speak candidly about race. Early in the first episode, a black teenager succinctly sums up the 55%-white school: “Every activity, every assembly, everything is made for white kids because this school is made for white kids, because this country was made for white kids.” Through data, we learn that the white students have shown significant academic improvement while black students have “virtually no improvement,” further widening the gap. Although Oak Park prides itself on its diversity — and many of its white educators pride themselves on helping students of color — it’s clear that the school isn’t always for those diverse students. It’s fair to say that much of America To Me can also function as a microcosm of the larger world of racial inequality.
This inequality isn’t a new subject but America To Me doesn’t approach it solely through educators, charts, studies, or panels of experts. What it does instead, and frequently beautifully, is allow the often-ignored students to speak to their own experiences. Part of what’s notable about the series is how immediately and thoroughly we get to know the teenagers — and how quickly we start to root for them. We meet senior Kendale, who straddles two worlds — his white friends in band and his black friends on the wrestling team — and explains that he can only talk about race within one of them. There’s biracial junior Chanti, who uses spoken word to navigate gender identity and past trauma with an ex, and junior Charles who uses the same approach to work out feelings about his father. Aspiring filmmaker Jada butts head with a white teacher who believes he’s relating to her by joking about her natural hair; she explains her embarrassment and worries it’s affecting her learning.
Even with the heavy material, America To Me manages to sometimes feel light: Freshman Grant talks about being biracial, but then later frets about how to ask a girl for her number in a scene that’s both adorable and painfully relatable. In fact, there are plenty of moments that filled me with cringe-y awkwardness of adolescence, whether it’s a student talking about being the only black kid in a class or overthinking the proper way to return a text to your crush. In a way, you can look at America To Me as both a remarkable, fascinating documentary about racial inequality and as a high school drama docuseries; I’m invested in whether or not Kendale makes weight, or if Grant dances with someone at homecoming. The teens, who have grown up with reality television, also help to keep things light, such as sophomore Tiara who doesn’t like school (“I like lunch”) and jokes, “It’s gonna be like Jersey Shore” or junior Ke’Shawn who frequently doesn’t do classwork but, when he does, motions to the documentary crew: “Get this on camera, I’m doing my work.” (Setting up cameras in the halls also allows for fun interstitials.)