What is this “America to me” documentary you write about?

A reader has asked me a couple times for more details about the context of #AmericaToMe, so I am going to use this post to answer those questions.


1. What is it?

Basically, “America to me” (#AmericaToMe) is a 10-part documentary series (some say docu-series or docuseries) about the perspectives of students and staff at Oak Park & River Forest High School, a suburban Chicago school situated in a town and community that prides itself on diversity. The series focuses mostly on 10 students (mostly African-American, some Latino, some White, some multi-ethnic or bi-racial) and tells their stories, including other family members, their friends and teachers. The series focuses on race, diversity, and “equality” (quotes because the idea of equality is questioned). From the website:
“Academy Award nominated filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) examines racial, economic and class issues in contemporary American education in the multipart unscripted documentary series “America to Me.””


2. Where can I watch it?

Right now, I believe the only way to view it directly is via STARZ, and any streaming platform that supports STARZ (ie, Amazon Prime). You can get a free 7-day trial of STARZ, or pay a $8.99/month subscription. Alternatively, you can go find someone else that is watching it and watch it with them. To date, I have only found one venue in the Champaign area that is a planning a public screening; the details are still being worked out, but keep 2:00 pm, September 26th open. STARZ releases one episode per week – Episode 4 was released last Saturday (Sept 8), Episode 5 should be available this coming Saturday (Sept 15).


3. Why watch it?

This is a critical question. Overall, we still struggle with issues of racial tension, and I believe we still have systemic/institutional racism that is detrimental to the success of some members of society. The title of the film is based on a Langston Hughes poem, as referenced in my first post on this series – I agree that America today is not the land of the free. But it can be. I see the documentary being exceptionally relevant for two reasons:

  1. The title of the first episode is “What’s so special about Oak Park?” In some ways, the whole point is that this could be Anywhere, USA (as confirmed during an interview with filmmaker Kevin Shaw). We have similar issues here in Champaign.
  2. It seems that the documentary takes pains to highlight the impact of teachers (and to a lesser extent, I think, administrators). I believe it really comes down to building relationships – for some of us (looking at white people here), that means recognizing the baggage we bring to the table with us, most of which we may take for granted.

I see the documentary as a conversation-starter.


4. How do I catch up and join the conversation?

Perhaps the first place to start is with https://www.americatomerealtalk.com. You can also find many folks posting in social media – I happen to follow the #AmericaToMe twitter hashtag (which is overloaded, meaning people have started using that hashtag for other things), and have seen several links for online magazines, newspapers, tv and radio stations that run segments based on the documentary.

4 Responses to “What is this “America to me” documentary you write about?”

  1. pattsi Says:

    Thank you for this most helpful post that frames what you have previously written. One comment C-U is not anything like Oak Park.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      You are being way too general. I can list of at least three different attributes about any one city/town/village that is like Champaign (ie, it has people, it has buildings, probably has a school or two, etc etc). Don’t say “C-U is not anything like Oak Park”, but be more specific.

      As to your point, yes, I realize there are a lot of differences. But just like my above comment, we can find any number of differences between C-U and ANY OTHER city/town/village (I daresay ALL other).

      Having grown up in Oak Park, I can say that Oak Park used to have a much more segregated community with racially identifiable geographic locations, not unlike the Champaign of today. Yet Oak Park today is different and more gentrified. I realize we are not comparing apples to apples, but that is not why I think the documentary is relevant. I think it is relevant because we do have specific diversity/racial issues that we as a community still need to address.

      I spoke with Mr. Orlando Thomas and Ms. Angela Smith at the new Administrative Center today, and was encouraged that at least these two individuals recognize the challenges (and urgency) we face in our schools and community; we have some amazing programs, initiatives and partnerships in place, to such a degree that most school districts nationwide cannot compare. I was led to believe that some of biggest issues in the schools are because the community is so segregated, lack of community consensus on what our priorities should be, and lack of a strong partnership with the University. I also received my second invitation to visit the Champaign Coalition. 🙂

      • pattsi Says:

        My response to the last paragraph is where has Unit 4 been when the city of Champaign built up McKinley and Bradley and leveled Bristol Place? Where is Unit 4 in arguing that what this community needs is economically integrated housing? Why is not Unit 4 going before the city council right now questioning the proposed zoning amendments. The proposed amendments will segregate the community even more. I have never once seen or heard Unit 4 having these conversations. The PTA’s ought to be strong voices on these issues. Because of the zoning and development plans, it is impossible to have neighborhood schools. What shame. I could go on.

  2. mstegeorge Says:

    Hi Charles, Thanks for posting your thoughts on it. I’m probably going to a friend’s in Oak Park to view it after they’ve all been released.

    I think there needs to be a face-to-face public forum for these discussions. I think the one that already exists and feels good to me is the Champaign Community Coalition. I was there on Wednesday again. I have seen various efforts to try to organize and bring dialogue. Some efforts, like First Followers, have a special focus. In that case, it is supporting those who have been in the prison system in returning to the community.

    The only group that I have seen that really feels grassroots, broad-based, and inclusive is the Champaign Coalition. I am very impressed with that group and Tracy Parson’s leadership. I think that’s where I would go to have a broader viewing of this documentary. They have been promoting the video called Racial Taboo. I haven’t seen it yet, have you? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=en8An_QqbfE

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