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September 23, 2018

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Review: ‘America to Me’ is a searing lesson in school inequity

When does racial inequality begin? To answer the question, you could go back centuries. Or, as the empathetic, eye-opening documentary series “America to Me” does, you could go back to school.

Filmmaker Steve James, who followed two African-American high school basketball players in “Hoop Dreams,” spent a year with students, teachers and parents at Oak Park and River Forest (OPRF) High School in suburban Chicago. In this integrated, progressive school he finds a community of white and black students whose education is not separate, but whose experience is not equal.

OPRF is the sort of school you might think would have race figured out better than others. In the 1960s, its community resisted white flight as black families moved in, along with liberal whites. Now, the school has a faculty conscious of diversity and reflective about bias.

But for all the good intentions, students of different races find themselves on different tracks, in different classes, with different outcomes, in a school that one teacher says “functions as two schools in one.”

The reasons are many and complicated — class, race, socialization, history — and this expansive, nuanced documentary tries to fold in all of them.

“America to Me,” which begins today on Starz, works as well as it does because it puts its characters first, and lets its lessons follow organically.

We meet Charles Donalson, a wry junior with a gift for spoken-word lyrics; Jada Buford, an outspoken senior and a budding documentary filmmaker herself; Ke’Shawn Kumsa, the first college-prep-track student in his family and a self-described “goof-off” who gets over on charm.

The kids, raised on reality TV, are camera-savvy and charismatic. “It’s going to be like ‘Jersey Shore,’ I promise to God,” jokes Tiara Oliphant, a sophomore. (Most of the students followed are black. It was harder, James says in his narration, to get white students and parents to speak openly about race.)

We encounter parents and teachers and administrators and coaches, we share their challenges and celebrations, we go to assemblies and into classes, and scene by scene, “America to Me” builds a world.

That’s the thing about school: When you’re in it, it is the world. And while the worlds of these white and black high school students aren’t entirely closed off, they only overlap so much. Kendale McCoy, a student in the marching band, says he has some white friends, but he can’t talk to them about race. (We see some of his white bandmates asking him about his hair and touching it.)

Some of the most telling scenes take place outside class. At a football game, a referee tells the coach that the high school is getting more penalty flags because “your team just plays so aggressively,” though from what we see, they’re simply playing football. It’s one example of a phenomenon that plays out in viral-video confrontations and police encounters: The same behavior is perceived as more dangerous in black youth than it is in white youth.

But there’s also an intraschool racial dynamic on the sidelines. The cheerleaders, who are largely black, are relegated to a remote end of the stands where more of the black students sit. The central location goes to the drill team, composed, its coach says elliptically, of “girls who come in with more dance experience.”

Technically, more of them are white students,” the coach adds.

“America to Me” is full of moments like this, where you see how racial imbalances are perpetrated by people who don’t see themselves as perpetrating them. It just somehow happens, they believe. Technically.

The film, however, is more empathetic than damning. The faculty come across as caring, conscious and willing to do the work, even if they don’t always agree on how. One well-meaning white teacher, Aaron Podolner, strains so hard to relate to his black students that it gets awkward. (“He is that one white person that just does not know his limit,” Buford says.)

Another colleague, Jess Stovall, spends a sabbatical studying how New Zealand’s schools integrate Maori students, but struggles to get the administration to implement the ideas she brings back. Her voice breaks when she recalls a student who was killed in a gang-related murder. “I don’t think people understand how life and death this job can be,” she says.

Part of the point of a series like this is that its issues have been relevant for generations. But “America to Me” rings especially urgent now, when charges of “reverse racism” fill our politics; when a majority of white people believe that whites are the victims of racial discrimination; when the cry “Black Lives Matter” gets dismissed with “Actually, All Lives Matter.” (The series begins with the aftermath of a controversy over a BLM assembly open only to black students.)

All these reactionary arguments feel like a demand that we declare racism solved, settled — that the past is past, and whatever happened, happened.

“America to Me” is ample evidence that in fact, what happened keeps happening — even if it happens in more subtle ways, with coded language and among people who talk the talk of inclusion. It’s an invaluable look at where inequity begins, as well as the difficulty of getting to the place where it ends.