'America to Me': How Oscar Nominee Steve James Made a 10-Hour Collaborative Docuseries
The 10-part series premieres on Starz this Sunday evening, August 26th.
Equity over equality (or at least a considerate and proper understanding of the two) is a key issue at the forefront of nonfiction filmmaker Steve James' latest docuseries, America to Me, a ten-part limited event that takes its title from a Langston Hughes poem and debuts this Sunday on the Starz network. Set over a year at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF) in Oak Park, Illinois, the series follows 12 students as they navigate through their high school careers, dealing with shyness, romantic crushes, sports, slam poetry, homecoming dances, and inattentiveness.
If that sounds like a simple, reductive description, that's because it is, mirroring how the school board would prefer you view the series. The truth of the matter is that for all of its vocal talk about a racially diverse student body, few students socialize with those outside of their own race at OPRF. An incredible achievement gap remains between the white students and the black students, and what the series presents is a school against itself; parents and faculty are often at odds with one another, attempting to push forth a reevaluation of the way we educate students in need.
For a project of this size, James came prepared with three segment directors, a tireless team of editors, and a familiarity with the subject: his two children had previously attended the school. What transpires is a lengthy sociological investigation (and evaluation) into the racial disparity of OPRF and how a number of students wish for change and teachers, often with their backs against the wall, are determined to accelerate ithat process.
As the series gets set to premiere this weekend on Starz, No Film School spoke with Steve James about his family's connection to the school, working with an editing team that helped craft the story from over 1,000 hours of footage, and the artistic freedoms and difficulties experienced via shooting a film versus shooting a multi-part series.
No Film School: What was your relation to Oak Park and River Forest High School before beginning this project? What made you single out this school specifically?
Steve James: I've lived in Oak Park with my wife and we've raised a family there since....forever. It was attractive to us because it was this liberal, diverse community, literally right smack on the western edge of the city, beautifully positioned for work and great schools, right? We were thinking that if we were going to (and we did) start having kids, we wouldn't have to navigate the Chicago Public School System craziness, and it would all work out. So yeah, I've been there forever.
I got the idea for the series back when two of my kids were attending school there, and they were having very different experiences of the school because of the tracks they were in. Just realizing that this was a very different school depending on what track you're in [was interesting]. If you're in the upper-level tracks, that determines where you fall in status and position within the school, and that's at a place vastly different if you're in the lower tracks.
As I knew that the community had been struggling for decades around race and achievement, it just dawned on me, "What if our kids were black and attending school here? What would that be like? Add that into the mix." I just remember having this idea that it would be really interesting to do a film about race and achievement and inequities in a place like this, where you would think we have it all figured out. My next thought was, "I don't know if we'll be able to make that film here."
It's a part the community has frankly been embarrassed by for decades. Part of the embarrassment is that they haven't been able to meaningfully impact it. It's like, "We're Oak Park. We're liberal and progressive and diverse and inclusive, and we have this proud history....well, except for that one part."
I just figured that the school would never want us to come in and tell that story. I was right. The school district did not want us to come in, but the school board made the decision. They were the ones that made the decision, which I didn't realize was the way it worked, but once we got this underway and started to pursue it, that's what we found out. We went about a process of ultimately meeting with and formally presenting to the school board. They took a vote and decided that they wanted to shake some things up, even though their administration was on the record saying, "We do not think this should happen."
"When I first talked to the board, I was talking about a standalone film, when one of the board members asked a very good question, which was, 'How you're talking about this sounds very ambitious. How are you possibly going to deal with this and do it justice in a single film?' I was like, 'You're right.'"
NFS: As you even show in the first episode, much of the school board was opposed to using their school as your subject.
James: Yes, the principal and the superintendent.
NFS: Was there certain pushback from them during the shoot itself?
James: They never, ever agreed to be interviewed throughout the entire process. We come back to that very issue in Episode 10, diving back in a little bit. They never agreed to be interviewed. They never gave us any real access to their day and to what they do. The only time you encountered them (the principal and the superintendent) were in public meetings where they couldn't deny our being there, or at public events or sports games.
They don't escape scrutiny by not participating, but what they did do by not participating was not speak up for themselves and for what they believed in and wanted to do. That was, I thought, an unfortunate decision by them.
NFS: Was the project originally conceived as a series?
James: When I first talked to the board, I was talking about a standalone film, when one of the board members asked a very good question, which was, "How you're talking about this sounds very ambitious. How are you possibly going to deal with this and do it justice in a single film?" I was like, "You're right." On the spot, I made a commitment that "If we can find the funding to do this as a miniseries, that's what we'll do, because I think you're right."
Fortunately, Participant Media came along and believed in it from the get-go and funded it. Frankly, if not for Participant, I'm not sure if this would have ever been made. When you're pitching people to try to get them to fund a documentary, the more dramatic, the better. If I went in and said, "You know, I've got access to a high school in Chicago where Latino gangs and black gangs are in conflict, and kids are caught in the middle of it, and the community is in an uproar," it would be like, "Yeah, let's do that," and this is not that.
"It's kind of no-holds-barred as to how we constructed this."
NFS: When you're working on a series, are you conceiving of the narrative in segmented portions? Does each episode have to have a "big event" that the story concludes with, i.e. a high school football game or a homecoming dance?
James: Well, I had this idea early on when we got to editing that I wanted to have one significant "anchor scene" per episode, and generally they're at the end of each episode, for the most part. A kind of "anchor scene" could be a football game, as it is in Episode 1, a homecoming dance in Episode 2; another football game but with different outcomes in Episode 3. In Episode 5, there's the basketball game, and then prom comes up and wrestling.
So yeah, I had that idea, but outside of that, it was like: we're following 12 kids and so we have to figure out, outside of these seasonal markers, things "as the way they happen, those dances and events and Christmas break and all that." It's kind of no-holds-barred as to how we constructed this.
I have to say that I had the most incredible edit team. I'm going to name them: Rubin Daniels Jr., Alanna Schmelte, Leslie Simmer, and David E. Simpson. I was also an editor on the project, but they did a phenomenal job of putting together a series that had so many plates spinning. This was the hardest thing I've ever been involved with. The editing of this was the hardest thing I've ever been involved with, especially. The level of sophisticated work that went on in putting this together, both the shooting of it and then the construction of it...I had the most amazing team.
"Each of us four ended up following three students each. That was the idea from the get-go: 'Okay, we're going to assign kids to each of you, and they're going to be your kids.'"
NFS: In that capacity, did you find yourself having to become a showrunner of sorts? How were you keeping track of the story strands throughout the process?
James: I guess I was the showrunner in one way, but I was also in the trenches. Each of the three segment directors (Bing Liu, Rebecca Parish, and Kevin Shaw) and I were all shooter-directors. That was purposeful. I wanted to hire a diverse group of filmmakers, filmmakers who were younger than me, which isn't that hard because there aren't many that are older than me...
NFS: Well, there is Frederick Wiseman.
James: [laughs] I could have tapped him! He's got experience shooting in high schools too. I should have called him up and said, "Hey..."
NFS: "I've seen your work. I'm a little bit younger, so I thought I'd give you a call."
James: Yeah, I don't want to engage in ageism!
NFS: "It's going to be 10 hours."
James: Right, "but it's not going to be all your 10 hours." [laughs]. Each of us four ended up following three students each. That was the idea from the get-go: "Okay, we're going to assign kids to each of you, and they're going to be your kids."
However, there were all kinds of great pollination, as several of the kids we followed were sharing the same classes or had the same teachers. There were all kinds of opportunities where all four of us would help each other out, filming each other or supporting each other by being a second camera, like at wrestling meets and stuff. I went downstate with Kevin because he was doing Kendale's story, for example. It was this great collaborative undertaking and each of us had duties and responsibilities. I spared everybody the school board meetings. I shot the school board meetings myself. It was just this great undertaking.
In a way, I was kind of the showrunner but I was also up pounding the pavement, shooting and following kids and teachers and all that stuff.
"One of the things Chala Holland told me off camera was that there are too many films made about the black community that are all about pain, suffering, and despair."
NFS: There's a moment in the second episode where you're interviewing the Assistant Principal, Chala Holland, who is about to leave to work at a different school. She begins to tear up when speaking with you and you're heard off-camera asking her if you should stop filming. She says "no." In those situations, have you ever found yourself making the decision to stop filming outright?
James: In those moments, I think it's good to ask your subjects about continuing because—and she says, "No, it's fine. This is me"—it's particularly interesting in that moment, because one of the things Chala Holland told me off camera was that there are too many films made about the black community that are all about pain, suffering, and despair. It starts to feel like nothing will come of that, except that a viewer will get to feel emotional about it and then go on and have dinner and go on with their lives, right? It feels very exploitative. I never want to feel that way about any subjects.
I just remember in that moment thinking, "If this is one of those moments for you, Chala, then we'll stop. You tell me that this is not something you want in this documentary, and we'll stop." But she didn't. I'm glad she didn't because what she was articulating was...here is this powerful, brilliant woman who is so good for that school and she's speaking to why she essentially needs to leave it.
NFS: You mentioned the cross-pollination in the editing. Did you luck into certain narrative connections that you couldn't have anticipated, i.e. Tiara's older sister (whom she lives with) having a son, Terrence, who also happens to attend the school? Or the sequence where Ke'Shawn's mother revisits the school, the dreaded fourth floor possessing terrible memories for her as a teenager in the 1990s?
James: When we were casting, we had kids and their parents come in and we videotaped them and talked about their experiences at school and told them what we were up to to see if they were interested. We initially did that with about 40 kids and their parents. It was important that the parents were there because I felt like we were recruiting families, not just kids. I knew from the start that we weren't going to confine ourselves to the school environment. We were going to go home with the kids and I wanted families that were comfortable with that. I also wanted to see who they were, to get a sense of the dynamic [at home].
That was important, and in that context, it was also important to see the different kinds of family structures throughout the community, various single-parent homes, for example. There are four in this series, which is interesting because you think of a community like Oak Park as being a place where you would see less of that. Even so, there are quite a bit of single-parent homes in Oak Park.
We also look at blended-family situations like Tiara and Terrence's, where Tiara is living with her sister and her nephew is Terrance (even though Terrance is older than her). Also, Kendale's situation is interesting, because his biological mom is allowing his great-aunt and uncle to raise him. All of those kinds of things were important. Biracial situations were vital too, because it's such a big part of Oak Park. There are a lot of biracial families in Oak Park and people come there with purpose. America's becoming much more biracial, right? The world is really. I felt it was important that we strongly represent the experiences of young, biracial students and their families.
When I met Danielle and her son, Ke'Shawn, I was immediately struck by the both of them. He was this engaging, funny, smart kid, but they, and even he, acknowledged, "I don't always do what I should do academically. I know I'm more capable, and this year, I'm going to buckle down." That's what he said and I didn't have a reason not to believe him. I thought, "That will be interesting to see." If he has a history of not doing that, will he actually do that this year?
Meeting his mother, Danielle...she grew up in Chicago originally, even though she moved to Oak Park and went to OPRF. I recognized a kind of toughness in her that I've seen often in mothers who grew up in the city. It's distinctive and I felt that would be an interesting part of this story. When I found out in our interview [process] that she had gone to that high school and that she never finished and that no one thus far in that family had finished high school, then I thought, "Well, this is a story we have to tell."
Out of the first 40 families we interviewed, I selected 12 kids. I presented my three segment directors with each the tapes of those interviews, and then we decided on seven to start. I knew without question that Ke'Shawn would be at the top of everybody's list.
NFS: Working on a series, of course, provides a number of advantages, including fewer worries about time constraints. However, does being given those advantages hinder you in any way?
James: I did one docuseries years ago called The New Americans, which was a great challenge. I swore after that experience that I would never do one again because of the amount of work involved. At that time, there was no DVR, and so people either saw it or they missed it, and a lot of people missed it. It was just like, "Oh my God. This was six and a half years of work [and people didn't see it]."
Anyway, worlds change and docuseries are a thing now. It felt like a good time to try it again. There are great advantages to in-depth, nuanced storytelling. It allowed us to tell the stories of so many more kids and still achieve a kind of depth with them and the institutions. It allowed us to keep in the kind of stuff that would potentially fall away in a "serious film" on these issues. My films are often funny. I think some people forget that. They think I do all these serious films, but the humor is vitally important. It's vitally important to filmmaking, as well as to life, and well, everything. The episodic format allowed us to let this thing breathe with what it means to be a young person in high school and all that that entails, first love and competitions and failure and success, and all that. I think the docuseries format really allows for that.
There are certain demands that the form makes that are different from a film, which is to think through, in each episode, where you're going to leave a story as an episode ends and where you're going to come back to it in the next episode. You don't have that in a narrative film. You have it to a limited degree, in terms of crafting the overall story, but you don't have the, "Okay, no, we don't want to get to that in this episode. Let's save that for the next episode because that's a [story] hook." We didn't have the kind of built-in hooks that other docuseries have.