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

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