Steve James and a production assistant during the filming of 'America to Me.'

A documentary series exploring the intersection of race and education at Oak Park and River Forest High School will debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Some District 200 school board members were allowed to see the series during an advance screening. 

The film, “America to Me”, was shot during the 2015-16 school year by award-winning director and Oak Park resident Steve James, whose production crew included Oak Parkers and at least one OPRF faculty member. Sundance will screen the first five episodes of the 10-part series.

“When I first presented this to the school board and we were trying to get permission to move forward, one of the points raised by a board member was, ‘How can you capture what goes on in this school in a single documentary?’ I agreed with that,” James said of his decision to turn the documentary into a multi-episode series instead of a single feature-length film. 

James said that the length of the 10-part series could change before it’s finally broadcast or streamed for larger audiences. 

The evolution of “America to Me” is of a pattern with James’ earlier films, such as the critically acclaimed 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, which follows the development of two African-American high school basketball players in Chicago’s inner city.  

That earlier documentary also originally was planned to be a half-hour short film produced for PBS, but five years and over 250 hours of film footage later, it turned into a nearly 3-hour documentary that grossed nearly $12 million and was nominated for an Academy Award. 

James said that, while “America to Me” was shot over a much shorter period of time, “we accumulated over 1,300 hours or so of footage, so there was a lot more filming.” 

“One of the big challenges of a series like this is that we followed lots of kids and their families,” James said. “We followed them in school and during extracurricular activities, so there was just a lot to grapple with.”

The 2015-16 school year was dominated by discussions about OPRF’s two aging pools and the means to replace them. By the time James’ film crew left the building, much less mundane and more explicit issues of race, such as the blowback from a student posting an image of himself in blackface on Snapchat, began dominating the local schools-related headlines.

“Every filmmaker wishes that they could capture the big issues that are happening even after they’re done with the principal filming,” James said. “But I think Oak Park is the kind of school where something happens all of the time, every year. While we were there, there was a lot happening. It seems like something is always happening there.” 

James said his documentary series doesn’t set out to solve the complex issue of race at OPRF or anywhere else. 

“The goal of the film, from the start, was to hold a mirror up to the school and the community around these issues of race and education in a place like Oak Park,” James said. “I think we’ve done that.” 


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