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.