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.)
America To Me is impressively comprehensive. It doesn’t only focus on the handpicked students (for anyone wondering “but where are the white teens?,” this decision is probed in the fifth episode) but also on the school as a whole by depicting how race, racism, classism, etc. infiltrates the honors courses, the clubs, the lunch tables, and a sports event that becomes chaotic. It includes interviews with the teachers (perhaps tellingly, both the principal and superintendent were against the documentary and declined to participate), most notably a biracial English teacher. She has a significant investment in her students’ success, even explaining her job as “life or death.” She’s candid about her own use of code-switching, her frustrations with trying to fix race-related issues while being unsupported by the principal, and her own racist experiences within the school. (In one genuinely affecting scene, she tells her class about being called a racial slur by a fellow student.) There are the reading teachers who attended the school and weren’t aware of the major issues until they became teachers there. There are the security guards who talk about the difficulties of the job, and the pressures to act a certain way. There’s the science teacher who claims to have “more insight than the average white guy” but seems unaware of how offensive his statements can be — even when a black student calls him out.
Of course, there are also the parents (some of whom are single parents, or actually older sisters, or aunts) — a key ingredient in the documentary. All of them want what’s best for their children and approach this in different ways, and with mixed results. In one of the series’ most poignant moments, Ke’Shawn’s mother returns to the halls for the first time since she was a student, reliving the discrimination she faced, which emphasizes that none of this is new — it’s just an unfair cycle where students of color are continually failed by the people who are ostensibly supposed to help.
After screening five of the 10 episodes, it almost doesn’t seem right to try and sum it up in a quick review. For one, it’s densely packed with characters and themes. It has much to say and, for the most part, succeeds at saying it. (It’s certainly worth wondering how much more successful it would feel in the hands of a black or biracial director, but it’s nice that James lets the students talk for themselves). I also found the episodes hard to marathon (fortunately, it airs weekly) and had to take frequent breaks because of the emotional weight of some of the scenes that were relatable to my own childhood as a student of color surrounded by white peers and teachers; I was thrown off by how quickly I became invested in the success of students I’d never met. While I think America To Me is a must-watch series, and doubly so if it takes you out of your comfort zone, recommending it doesn’t feel like quite enough. I don’t just want people to watch it. I want everyone to really sit down with it, to discuss it, to find concrete actions to fix the systemic issues within the education system, to actually understand the financial and racial struggles instead of distancing themselves through a screen. Which, I suppose, is a testament to America To Me‘s power.
‘America To Me’ premieres Sunday, August 26 at 9 pm EST on Starz.