'America to Me' makes Oak Park debut

Steve James' 10-part docu-series inspires and makes some uncomfortable

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

There's a scene in America to Me — the 10-part docu-series by renowned documentary filmmaker and longtime Oak Park resident Steve James — that made Jackie Moore, the president of the District 200 school board, "openly weep." 

An African-American parent — whose charismatic and smart but vulnerable black son is among the students James profiles in the film — is seen walking through the hallways of OPRF, reminiscing on her own days at the school. The reminiscence is, as she put it, hellish. 

She attended OPRF in the 1990s but never finished. During one scene, she's looking at a room in the school that, at the time of filming, was dedicated to "motivational mentoring," according to the placard outside the door. The woman laughs. 

She remembers the room differently. It was where she and other African-American students had a class that consisted of shooting pool and watching episodes of "Jerry Springer," as if they were getting prepped for prison.   

The woman also recalls her last day attending OPRF. She had just had surgery and wanted permission from her counselor to use the elevator instead of the stairs. 

"You will get nothing," the woman recalled the counselor telling her. She used the elevator anyway. After a security guard asked her to show her pass, she pulled up her shirt to show him the stitches on her stomach left from the surgery. That was her pass, she recalled telling the guard, not long before she was escorted out of the building. 

The woman said she felt that the whole confrontation was "a setup," designed to ensure that she exit a place where she was never wanted. 

James' docu-series, which premieres on the Starz cable channel at 8 p.m. on Aug. 26, has plenty of moments that a typical institution might consider PR nightmares. 

But district leaders like Moore and even OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse, who opposed involvement in the film project when James first pitched the idea in 2014, consider the series to be cathartic. They're also hoping that it will be catalytic — igniting, once and for all, real solutions to the opportunity and equity gaps that have existed at OPRF for generations. 

Rouse introduced the film before an audience of several hundred during a screening and discussion that OPRF hosted in collaboration with Kartemquin Films, the nonprofit production company that produced the film, on Monday evening at the Lake Theatre in Oak Park.

During an interview on Aug. 10, Rouse said he experienced "a lot of emotions" while watching the film.

"It's always difficult to see yourself," he said, noting that there are scenes in the docuseries "when we see our school and we're proud" and scenes where "we're not so proud." 

During his remarks on Aug. 13, Rouse laid out his ambitions for the school in the wake of the film's release. 

"It's our goal that our current racial equity work become a beacon of light and a national model for this country," he said, echoing administrators and board members who have touted the district's progress on racial equity since James and his crew filmed during the 2015-16 school year. 

On Aug. 10, Moore said she was glad that the documentary is dismantling the notion that the opportunity gap between black and white students is a matter of individual ability.

"It's much more complex than that," she said. 

D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said during last week's interview that when she saw the unedited documentary, "some of it took me back to my lived experiences. I was born in the '50s, so I've been down that road." 

Monday's panel discussion, which took place after audience members saw the first two hour-long episodes of the docuseries, featured James, Moore, Pruitt-Adams, OPRF English teacher Paul Noble, and students Grant Lee and Caroline Robling-Griest — both of whom were featured in the film. 

Lee, who was a freshman when the film was shot and is now a senior, said he's seen progress at OPRF over the last three years. 

"It's kind of crazy to look at the state we were in three years ago," Lee said, "and all of the progress we've made." 

The district has even created a landing page on its website that includes a guide for those who want to host watch parties and discussions related to the film, an FAQ about the making of the docu-series and a comprehensive list of some of the district's racial equity work over the last three years. 

In addition, Kartemquin and Participant Media, the other film production company responsible for the documentary's release, hopes to facilitate a national conversation about race and equity by screening the film, and hosting discussions, across the country.

Those discussions may get intense, considering that the film cuts straight to the heart of white innocence — or at least the primal fear among many whites of being perceived as villains in the country's racial saga.

 "I got this feeling that in the white community here, I've lived here for 33 years, that there was a fear — people knew that this was about race and equity and they feared that, being a white family in the profile, they would be set up as an example of what's wrong or an example of white privilege," James said during Monday's panel discussion. 

Robling-Griest reinforced the director's observation. 

"I overheard a girl in the hall while I was being filmed at my locker and she was talking to a friend who said her mom didn't want her to be involved because they were going to portray her as this example of white privilege," she said. 

For many people, however — black and white alike — the docu-series marks an opportunity to confront those fears. 

"Focusing on things like white privilege is difficult when you have no racial consciousness," Rouse said. "But why can't we have those conversations for once?" 

For Karin Sullivan, the district's communications director, the film is that rarest of things — a call for personal responsibility directed at whites. 

"For many of my years here, I had been one of those white liberals who moved here for diversity without questioning much beyond that," she said on Aug. 10. "[I've learned that] if I want the best for our students, then I have to be willing to look at my role in all of this."

To access OPRF's America to Me landing page, visit: oprfhs.org/about/America-to-Me-Documentary-Series.cfm. To join the national conversation, visit americatomerealtalk.com. 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Mike Hanline  

Posted: August 28th, 2018 12:47 PM

@Alex If you have anything of substance to say, why don't you actually try watching the documentary with an open mind and joining the conversation instead of resorting to one of your all too predictable and tiresome "Oak Park leftist" rants?

Alex Garcia  

Posted: August 28th, 2018 12:27 PM

"...the thoughtful discussions that are taking place." Thoughtful discussions, or one-sided lectures? See, when I hear an Oak Park leftist say "we need to have a conversation", that usually means that said OP leftist wants to lecture others about "white privilege", colonialism, capitalism or some other similarly overused device. People here have apparently reached their own conclusions about this "documentary" series because it has been produced, directed and supported by those who have something to gain out of this constant drumbeat of race-based and baiting drivel. If you want to start an authentic mutual conversation or discussion with folks, this is not the right basis for doing that.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 28th, 2018 9:55 AM

It's important to educate yourself before passing any judgement on this documentary or the subject matter. No matter what you think should be done the reality is we have kids falling through the cracks in our community and that's sad. I don't know exactly how to solve it and if it were easy it would be solved already. My hope is part of the series will discuss success stories and how those successes happened so we can move forward and help as many kids as possible.

Bridgett Baron  

Posted: August 26th, 2018 11:21 PM

It was disheartening to read these comments yesterday. But I was once again reminded that online chatter is not a fair reflection of reality. Tonight, over 700 people showed up at the high school to watch the first episode, with over 200 staying for small group discussions. And many of those committing to come each week throughout the series. Plus there are other viewings and formal discussions happening outside the high school, such as at L!ve Cafe. I have had the privilege of seeing all 10 episodes, but still attended tonight, and am committed to attend every week, because I am hopeful that this a defining moment in our community. I am encouraged by the thoughtful discussions that are taking place, face-to-face. And the willingness to be uncomfortable in order to become a better community. We have it in us. I know we do.

Mark Podolner from Oak Park  

Posted: August 25th, 2018 3:22 PM

The vitriolic battle between Paul Nobel and his detractors regarding the new series by Steve James, "America to Me," is profoundly disturbing. James had hoped that his series would stimulate positive discussion on racial issues. Instead what we have is the retreat to two opposing camps hurling insults at each other. Camp#1 basically states that the lower achievement of black students is of their own making in an environment that has abundant opportunities and support services. Camp#2 puts all of the blame on institutional racism, manifested by the white privilege of the staff. This false dichotomy leads nowhere because the complex truth undoubtedly lies between these extremes and virtually no one, white or black, liberal or conservative, wants to admit it. I'm in the liberal camp, myself, but I do think that James diminished the opportunity for more open dialogue by neglecting the views of white students. He argues that white students didn't want to talk about race but that's probably because the pervasive PC orientation of camp#2 does not allow speech that might be interpreted as critical of people of color in any way. So if we really do want to have a dialogue about race at OPRF, then we have to consider the possibility that there are elements of truth in both of the frameworks explaining racial inequity and listen to "the other side" without this insidious online inclination to attack the individual rather than his ideas. And to do that you have to transcend the false barrier that has been constructed that people of different races can't understand each other better. No, we cannot understand the totality of anyone's life experience that is significantly different than our but that shouldn't prevent us from gaining a greater understanding of another race, culture, gender, or grouping other than our own. On the contrary it should be our mission and teachers should be trained to reach out more effectively to their students of different backgrounds.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: August 25th, 2018 7:58 AM

Since this is about race, are Latino and Asian perspectives presented as well? Just wondering.

Jennifer Malloy Quinlan  

Posted: August 24th, 2018 6:01 PM

This comment thread sure explains a lot. Geez.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: August 24th, 2018 3:33 PM

And another from Vox: https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/8/24/17761436/america-to-me-steve-james-interview-review-starz

Christopher Bell  

Posted: August 24th, 2018 3:19 PM

Sorry - Both released today - NY Times Article and '"A Seering Lesson" and excellent Vanity Fair article. With America to Me, Documentarian Steve James Holds Up a Mirror to His Own Neighborhood?"And Not Everyone Is Happy The 10-part Starz series explores the struggle of one diverse, ostensibly liberal high school in suburban Chicago, as students, teachers, and administrators deal with racial inequities that are only getting bigger.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: August 24th, 2018 2:50 PM

Interesting Article in NY Times Article Today regarding documentary- "A seering lesson on school inequality"

Marilyn McManus  

Posted: August 23rd, 2018 5:03 PM

I have great hope that this film series will launch some serious discussion about the ways we have been racially socialized into presumed superiority and inferiority roles. Systemic racism flourished in our institutions (including and especially schools) since slavery. None of us are liberated from racism and oppression until we all are. This is a great time to challenge ourselves to listen and ask questions.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 22nd, 2018 6:10 PM

Chris: thank you for your forthright comments. We should have a beer or coffee sometime to discuss. Thanks again.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: August 22nd, 2018 5:19 AM

Bruce ... no comment is just reality of OP in which we eat our own young/ push you out bubble if conflict : try to change system. Second there is no upside from commenting . If I say it is completely on parents then I am Uncle Tom and if I say there is more racism/ elitieism in oak Park then my parents progressive intellectuals generation, I am angry black man. Get my point... I saw first two episodes and one of my 87 classmates kids is in the movie (who is black) and again, let me give you abbreviated /cliff notes version according to him ..Whites with privalege say they are progressive but reality little is being done to help blacks (including by blacks) to help them succeed. There is faux acceptance but reality many whites have few black friends and schoolndors not date

Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 21st, 2018 10:04 PM

Oh, Mr. Bell. I nearly forgot to add: I guess I will have to see "America To Me" and come to my own conclusions (about the film)..

Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 21st, 2018 10:01 PM

Mr. Bell. This is my concern about your comments. You have an opinion but - as you state - will keep it to yourself while your kids are in school. The fact that you feel this way is concerning. People should not be afraid of the police, their neighbors, least of all their school. That does not speak well of our school at all. Second, Mr. James - whether I agree with him or not - is a world renowned film maker. As such he is involved in an artistic endeavor. His expertise are documentaries. But he - just like Steven Spielberg - still is involved in a commercial enterprise ... he does have to sell product and he has to make a return on his investment. Mr. James is not a marketer. I would surmise that his goal was not to market OP but rather to express his artistic vision - reality as he saw it ... "artistic license" and all. That is the reality of any artistic/commercial endeavor. As such I don't know what you mean by saying this documentary is not casting OP in a positive light. I mean seriously: did you really believe, that given present realities in our society, that such a documentary would cast OP in a positive light ... sort of like one big feel good advertisement? That wouldn't sell.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: August 21st, 2018 4:26 PM

As someone who graduated from OPRF, African American, attended University of Chicago, returned after 18 years and has two current AA boys at the school, I certainly have a long view and an opinion (which I will keep to myself until my youngest graduates). The only comments I will offer is black families are not a monolith (i.e. all the same) and many of the gap issues are present by middle school or before. If a child reaches high school and is not prepared they will struggle and forget about AP classes . There are also many hard working black families that lack the resources to address issues more affluent OP can (drugs, extra tutoring etc) Many of these issues existed in 80's when I attended and OPRF was ranked in top 10 in state consistently. One thing is certain, this documentary is not casting OP in positive light. I have friends from NY/LA who have seen trailer with same comment. We need to come together, have the tough discussions and perhaps try new approaches if we want to change things...

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 11:01 PM

Mr. Noble...You find my comment about the black family structure bigoted? Are you so delusional, that you simply dismiss factual evidence and call it bigoted? They may not be the voice of your neighbors because based on your residence which cost more than 8 times my annual salary, I doubt you would find a black family that is a recipient of the "war on poverty". I work in Englewood and Back of the Yards Mr. Noble and I don't get summers off. If you want to see what I see, then feel free to volunteer and you can help me find black youth employment. You can help me fill out their FAFSA paperwork. You can help me prep them for interviews, write their resumes, get their tattoos removed, buy them clothes and even attend their funerals. You think I'm clueless? Sir, you are living in your high school teacher bubble, safely behind your desk. When was the last time you knocked on the door of a gang member who has been shot and offered them help? Once a gang member is shot the odds of getting shot again go up exponentially. Are you willing to step in and help? I didn't think so. The problem with teachers like you Mr. Noble, is you are so arrogant, you don't even know what you don;t know as you sit in your high and mighty ivory tower looking over your subjects. The thought that my tax dollars go towards your 6 figure salary makes me ill. Gladly, I won't be living here long enough to pay for your 6 figure pension. "The chances are that he (black child) was born into a family without a father - often as a result of welfare laws that require a broken home as a condition of help"....Robert Kennedy. Would you call RFK bigoted? Brush up on your history Mr. Noble and head east a few miles once in a while.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 10:56 PM

I am going to toss out a pretty radical idea here. How about we watch the documentary? I mean occasionally information helps people make fact based decisions. I know it's radical but let's give it a shot. If everyone is so sure this is all bs then the documentary shouldn't do anything to change that.

Michael Nevins  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 7:26 PM

Alright, I'm confused. Isn't this program mainly about knocking down the field house and building a mega-pool? It's not? There are more important issues at OPRF which need to be addressed? I had no idea!?! Why is an OPRF teacher calling a minority poster here a "crank?" Is he a bigot? Why is is this teacher arguing against free speech - solely because it displeases him (btw, I know that the Wed Journal isn't a unit of govt)? What is he teaching our kids (and my two kids are semi-recent grads)? Like I started my comment, I'm confused (and not for the first time!).

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 6:57 PM

@Paul Noble: If you think there's a Dirty Dozen here, then I get to be Lee Marvin. Remember when you confidently said at a Board Meeting that Principal Nate Rouse's concept of "Affinity Groups" based on race and sexual identity would survive legal challenge? The Office for Civil Rights s of the U.S. Department of Education shoved that right down your throat.. Go back to teaching Freshman English, possibly the remedial classes. And take a course in American Government from your fellow faculty. Sit in the back, of the room, and listen.

Neal Buer  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 6:43 PM

Paul, it's always difficult when someone like Dan Haley gives people a forum to voice their opinions. It would probably be better, if no one had a voice, except you.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 6:19 PM

Actually, Paul, if you'd actually read any of Dan Haley's remarks in his columns and on this comment board, you would know with certainty that Dan IS NOT happy with the level of discourse on this and other platforms. Perhaps if you got down from your lofty perch atop your horse, you could see things more clearly. Lots of disagreement about lots of issues here on the ground, where most people live, as uncomfortable as that makes some people feel.

Paul Noble  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 6:08 PM

You make my point. If I thought you and the 10 or so other cranks who post 90% of the comments here were the "voice of the taxpayers," I'd just move. But the clueless bigotry about "black family structure" you've written below and your ravings elsewhere aren't the voice of my neighbors. They are what thoughtful people have come to expect from comment threads across the internet: embittered ignorance, posted with impunity from behind the safety of keyboards. Reasonable people don't come here to talk. You and your pen-pals do. Still, my issue is not with you, but as I said, Dan Haley, who is happy to provide your Dirty Dozen a platform for their venom in exchange for hits. That's my final word; bare your fangs.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 5:29 PM

Mr. Noble, I would think you would be more respectful of the voice of the taxpayers who fund your $140K plus salary at OPRF and will fund your 6 figure pension for the rest of your life. Would you prefer we just shut up and continue to pay and allow OPRF to operate unchecked? If you dislike the level of discourse, then I suggest you contribute what you deem to be worthy discourse. Why do you think the dozen or so "clueless folks" on here are the "greatest obstacle to civil community discourse"? I didn't think a dozen strangers would wield so much power and influence in Oak Park. Sorry Mr. Noble, but I'm not one of your students. You don't get to tell me to go away. Do you always speak to people like this who disagree with you? Calling people ignorant, mean-spirited, embittered and clueless is not exactly the type of language that encouraged civil community discourse, now is it? Enjoy the rest of your summer break!!!!

Paul Noble  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 4:50 PM

The level of discourse on this thread (and most other threads on this website, frankly), repeatedly dominated by the same dozen embittered, clueless folks with too much time on their hands, advances a longstanding, airtight case for doing away with comments here. As a longtime member of this community, I continue to find these comment threads to be the greatest public obstacle to civil community discourse, and a huge part of the problem the Wednesday Journal pretends to address. Dan Haley's decision to continue providing a megaphone to so few ignorant, mean-spirited people is beyond me.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 3:41 PM

Ramona: In regard to your reference to the academic performance of hispanic kids. Hispanic kids make up the plurality at Lane Tech, which is judged by USN as the third best school in the state. Though standardized test scores are not broken down by "racial" category the racial makeup of Lane Tech is fascinating and I think supports much of what you say.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 3:18 PM

What adds to my personal frustration, is I struggled in school because English is not my first language. These kids at OPRF have all the advantages our best public schools have to offer and still, they can't perform at an acceptable level. So the question is "Why not?" Why is the finger always pointed at the school?

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 3:11 PM

100% correct MIke. Both have contributed to the decimation of the black family structure. You don't know how the war on poverty has failed the black community Mike because you are probably insulated from low income people of color (100% speculation). You see if a single mother of 2, 3 , 4 kids, etc. gets married, she loses benefits based on the structure that has been in place since day one. So single parenthood is incentivized. Even Robert Kennedy spoke about this problem in 1968. More than $10 TRILLION has been spent on the war on poverty...and guess what? It's worse today than it was 50 years ago. Anytime the U.S. declares war on anything (drugs, poverty, terrorism, crime, etc.) it becomes VERY expensive and the outcomes are dismal. "For 50 years, the well-meaning leftist agenda has been able to do to blacks what Jim Crow and harsh discrimination could never have done: family breakdown, illegitimacy and low academic achievement." Walter Williams

Jacek Lazarczyk  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 3:09 PM

@Mike, I believe Ramona refers to the situation where the responsibility to care for a child born to a an unwed woman shifts from her family, community and the irresponsible male to the taxpayer. Further, a poor woman and her child now have an incentive to be supported by the state rather than form a union with an equally poor man, They will be worse off doing that.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 2:31 PM

@Ramona Curious what you mean by, "It couldn't be that the war on poverty has decimated the black family structure." While I agree that the decimation of the black family structure is a major factor in poor test scores, I don't see how the war on poverty, failed or not, has contributed. I would think that the for-profit prison system with its built-in incentives to incarcerate (even for non-violent crimes) play a much bigger role.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 1:34 PM

This is nothing more than white guilt propaganda. As I recall reading an article in the journal with the headline ""Absolutely-Without a Doubt, the Single Most Embarrassing Things About Oak Park" What shocked me is that black students scored below special education students and white kids more than doubled the score of black kids (88.2 vs. 41.9). Then of course we continue to hear how black students are disciplined at a higher rate than white students. Since essentially, NOTHING has changed since 2012, why isn't the black community calling for a change in leadership? Ohhhhh that's right. I forgot. OPRF has black leadership already. Clearly, they are just perpetuating white privilege and are on board with unjustly disciplining black youth and contributing to their poor test scores. Why do HIspanic students score 65% higher than black students? Same school, same teachers, same schedule, same books, etc. etc. yet different outcomes. Ever think maybe it's something OUTSIDE the school? Of course not. It couldn't be that the war on poverty has decimated the black family structure. I mean the intentions were so prudent, just and virtuous. Saw the trailer to the film on youtube and immediately saw nothing but propaganda. Evidently, equality of opportunity isn't good enough for Steve James and the rest of his white guilt fans, they want equality of outcomes. I wonder if personal responsibility EVER comes into the conversation.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: August 20th, 2018 10:52 AM

Kevin, what are we going to do with you? I mean you have an MBA and are so smart, but seem to miss the obvious: this is a commercial film. Kumbaya doesn't sell these days. Racial divisiveness does. Do you think for one minute, a film depicting anything other than the usual liberal progressive shibboleths ?" some of the stuff you mentioned ?" is going to sell? Do you remember the scene in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is told to "ignore that man behind the curtain!?" Well same thing here as related to the facts that you point out: African Americans serve at all levels of leadership ?" including the highest - at D200. But never mind ?" like in Oz - just ignore those inconvenient little facts. I would not be surprised (but do not know) if Mr. James did just that. On the other hand, Ms. Sullivan, if quoted correctly, describes the perfect useful schmo: she will be one among many who will continue to flagellate themselves because they have committed original sin ? they were born white. But no matter, I am sure she, as well as others who are similarly afflicted, will try and overcome and make up for this egregious life misfortune by seeing Mr. James' cathartic confessional many times over. Hey, Kevin, now I want to screen Mr. James' opus and see for myself if it is merely one white man's apologia for his original sin ?" reflecting many of the inane comments in the article ?" or a masterful documentary in line with his former artistic endeavors.

Neal Buer  

Posted: August 17th, 2018 5:39 PM

I will reserve my judgement until after I view the entire series, but it does seem odd the someone would "openly weep" for an incident that happened over 20 years ago.

Kevin Peppard from Oak Park  

Posted: August 17th, 2018 4:39 PM

HOW IS THIS WHITE PRIVILEGE ? We have a Board President who is Black, and another Board Member who is Black, and we have a white Board Member who is married/engaged to a Black man and already has borne his child, and cares for his Black children from a previous marriage.. We have a Black Superintendent, and Black Principal, and until recently had a Black Director of Human Resources. Yet this is somehow an institution that is subliminally encouraging some vague concept of "White Privilege?" Oh, I suppose I'm part of the part of the problem, but I refuse to drink the Kool Aid. But to to me, this is a case of THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES, and I',m the little kid who just can't see them, while the adults are too afraid to say anything. This is political correctness gone wild. As I said online here before, two of the Black households that live next door to me don;t want to send their children to even Mann School, (which is lily-white) because they prefer them in a more morally controlled environment -Grace Lutheran, and later Fenwick..Wake up and smell the coffee. Or the Grape-laced Kool Aid from Oak Park, the new Jonestown. That school is getting destroyed by its fantasies on political correctness, overspending on operations, and stratospheric dreams on capital projects.

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