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'America To Me' Proves Issues Of Race And Education Often Transcend Class Boundaries


The filmmaker Steve James says too many documentaries about kids of color struggling in school focus on poor, deprived neighborhoods. So in his new docu-series "America To Me," James examines the elite, progressive Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show, which debuts Sunday on Starz, proves issues of race and education often transcend class boundaries.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Oak Park is a Chicago suburb known for celebrating its diversity. But test scores at the local high school show a problem - black students have performed worse than white students for many years. To examine the dynamics behind the school's achievement gap, filmmaker Steve James pulled off a gargantuan task, assembling film crews to track 12 different students in 2015. They followed students' parents, teachers, coaches and even the security guards over a year's time.

The result is one of the best documentaries on TV this season. "America To Me" is an intimate portrait of an institution struggling to even talk about these issues. Chala Holland, a black woman who's eventually shown leaving her job as assistant principal at Oak Park and River Forest High School, identified one problem.


CHALA HOLLAND: Every space has a culture. Then this school is grounded on white cultural norms.

DEGGANS: The star of this series is the students, mostly non-white, who slowly reveal themselves before the cameras. African-American student Charles Donalson talks about how many non-white students feel the school doesn't include them.


CHARLES DONALSON: Every activity, every assembly, everything is made for white kids because this school was made for white kids because this country was made for white kids. They have to realize that some things just have to be ours.


DEGGANS: Chanti Relf, a biracial kid who doesn't identify by gender, speaks on feeling like an outsider in the school's spoken word club.

CHANTI RELF: I don't have the long, swinging braids, the consonantly shaped legs, don't respond to good game, ladies, practice on Tuesday, ladies, see you soon, ladies.

I just feel weird being on, like, an all-girls team because, like, on the outside, like, I look like I belong. But on the inside, like, I feel like I don't.

DEGGANS: James, who directed the Oscar-nominated 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams," got the school board to approve filming over resistance by the district's superintendent and the high school's principal. The filmmaker told me at a press conference that students had sophisticated insights about race. They also had little patience for microaggressions, the small slights based on stereotypes that they might encounter in a day.


STEVE JAMES: What those microaggressions reveal is that deeper-seated racism that is extremely hard to root out unless you call it. You know, a lot of white people - I'm a white guy - we say some pretty insensitive stuff all the time. And if people don't call you on it, then you'll never learn.

DEGGANS: The show caches this dynamic in a conversation between a black student and a well-meaning white teacher.


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: When I see black students in my class, I kind of label it as an extra priority.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: So I have a issue with that. You should just see us as your students, not as, like, oh, this is my black students. I'm going to have to shuck and jive with her and try to see if I can relate.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: If I want to raise the achievement of my black students, I have to do something so that they have the comfort level to be in the class. Now, the things I've done with you have made you uncomfortable.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: That's what I'm saying because that can ruin my whole day, can make me think about that for the rest of the day.

DEGGANS: It's a tough question - how to help non-white students without making them feel unfairly singled out. Over 10 episodes, "America To Me" starts an important conversation at the heart of the struggle to achieve racial equality in America. Because in a country where children aren't educated equally, people can't live equally. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUG HAMMER'S "MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.