Steve James, a famed documentary filmmaker, longtime Oak Parker and parent of OPRF graduates, was given the OK last week to make his next film at, and about, Oak Park and River Forest High School. More specifically, James’ focus will be on academic equity, what we have previously called the achievement gap, what we know is the disturbing split between many black and white students in what they accomplish academically.
Permission was granted by a basically unanimous vote of the school board at OPRF. There were dissenting voices in Supt. Steven Isoye and some faculty. And while we understand their reluctance and some specific concerns, we admire the brave choice made by the school board.
Whenever doors are opened to journalists, and OPRF’s will be wide open to filmmakers throughout the next school year, there are worries about a loss of control over the message. But in James’ capable hands, OPRF board members clearly felt the final product will be fair. And fair is, ultimately, all that one can seek in a journalistic effort.
School board President John Phelan has said he hopes the film (potentially a TV mini-series) might help OPRF find solutions to the entrenched gap issues. For his part, Isoye said Thursday evening that OPRF does not need help finding solutions, that there is research that can provide solutions.
We’d respectfully suggest that both are wrong. Solutions will not become obvious from a documentary. Conversely, if the research exists to set this school and these villages on the path to closing this gap, then why has there not been notable progress?
Instead, we see value in this effort as a means of moving our communities past, and well beyond, the safe talk, the indulgent talk, the boasting talk, the talking past one another, the talking with disrespect and only shallow understanding. Forty-five years into this experiment with racial integration, Oak Park and River Forest do not talk squarely about race, class, culture. For heaven sakes, the school community nearly had a stroke a few weeks back over a 90-minute assembly intended to let black kids talk openly about their experiences!
If Steve James is going to film for a year, let’s give him something to record. Let’s give him a school and a community that is actively grappling with the gap, not infighting and not blowing kisses to our overwritten past successes.