The series takes the viewer on an insightful, engaging, and maddening trip back to school, which is enabled by the extraordinary access James and his segment directors were given to classrooms, board meetings, and people’s homes. Those three directors are the African American filmmaker Kevin Shaw, the white filmmaker Rebecca Parrish, and the Asian American documentarian Bing Liu, whose 2018 movie about skateboarding, Minding the Gap, is a masterpiece on its own terms.
What makes America to Me so distinctive is that the school it features, Oak Park and River Forest High School, should be a success story. It’s in the liberal village of Oak Park, Illinois, where (as James’s narration reveals) community leaders in the 1950s and ’60s resisted white flight and redlining to keep the area integrated. The white residents who left were mostly older and conservative, James explains, while the white people who moved in were younger and liberal, hopeful that they could play a part in “an American experiment in true diversity.”
So if this school—with its diverse student body and 94 percent graduation rate—isn’t getting things right, the show seems to ask, which school is?
In the first episode, a school-board meeting reveals that a nine-percentage-point achievement gap between white and black students hasn’t budged since 2003, and that the school’s administrators seem to lack a sense of urgency when it comes to bridging the divide. Over the past 15 years, the average test scores of white students have continuously improved, while black students’ have mostly stayed static.
The social atmosphere at the school is similarly strained. “In this community, when we mention race, all hell breaks loose,” the assistant principal, Chala Holland, explains in America’s beginning scenes. Oak Park and River Forest held a Black Lives Matter assembly for students that specifically excluded white students, and the scandal ricocheted through the right-wing media. It’s an early sign of how disingenuous the debate over race can be, how fraught conversations are before they even begin. “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,” Charles Donalson, a black junior, tells the camera. “They have to realize that some things just have to be ours.”
The advantage of James’s long-form format in this case is that it allows viewers to really connect with the students, the teachers, and the parents who are featured. The series spends so much time with charming, smart kids that it’s hard not to cherish their victories and rage at their battles. Kendale McCoy, an honors-track senior who participates in both the school’s wrestling program and its marching band, is one of the most compelling characters. Code-switching effortlessly between the mostly black athletes and the mostly white musicians, Kendale is gregarious and popular, but in spoken-word classes he reveals some of the turmoil he feels inside.