Donna Carroll, president of Dominican University, welcomed the crowd to Lund Auditorium on Sept. 11, for a Wednesday Journal Conversation with Steve James, director of the new series America to Me, which she described as a “truth-seeking documentary.”
James has been seeking truth for a long time, going back more than a quarter-century to Hoop Dreams, the documentary that established his reputation.
But it was moderator Charlie Meyerson, occupying one of four chairs on stage, who served as official truth-seeker and inquisitor for this latest installment in our conversations series. The extra chairs were an indication either that two more guests were expected or that Meyerson was math-impaired. James jumped on the latter and rode that running gag through the next hour and a half, despite Meyerson’s straight-man protestations that he was being “Gaslighted.”
Maybe James was just trying to get back at Meyerson for his opening question: “How does it feel to be the man who dented Oak Park’s sense of self-esteem?” a reference to his new truth-seeking series about OPRF High School, which is garnering plenty of attention, acclaim and criticism — especially in Oak Park. America to Me has been a catalyst, juicing a long-running dialogue about racial equity in this community, taking it to another level at the high school, on social media and in our own Viewpoints pages.
“Deeply satisfying,” James quipped in return.
And they were off. James, a longtime Oak Parker, said his three kids went through the Oak Park school system and graduated from OPRF in 2006, ’08, and ’10. One of them had issues with attention deficit disorder and, given the complications that created, James said he couldn’t help wondering, “What would it be like going through that if you were black?”
That was the kernel of his notion to film a documentary about the local high school, but he doubted the school’s administration would allow the needed access for such a project.
“I’ll never be able to make that,” he thought, so he didn’t pursue it.
He said as much to me in an interview in 2014. When he read it in Wednesday Journal, John Condne, head of OPRF’s media department, called James and told him the administration works at the discretion of the school board. That’s who he needed to approach. Condne thought they might be open to the idea. He encouraged James to make a presentation.
The board, headed at the time by River Forest resident John Phelan, was receptive, but after hearing James’ pitch, they asked, “How are you going to fit all that into a two-hour documentary?” James promised that if he could find the funding, he would turn it into a series.
Which he did, and so Meyerson and James had to navigate a minefield of spoiler alerts since only three of the 10 episodes had been aired when they conducted their conversation.
“Everyone lived through the making of ‘America to Me,'” James offered as his first spoiler.
The title comes from Langston Hughes’ famous poem, “Let America Be America Again.” After filming footage in the Spoken Word Poetry Club at OPRF, James went through various thread poems, looking for a phrase that might work as a title and that led him to African-American poetry. Hughes’ line, “America never was America to me” jumped out.
“This country was built by people of color who don’t feel ownership,” James said, noting the series is only incidentally about Oak Park and OPRF High School. “It’s an intimate look through the eyes of kids at America,” he added, noting that “too many documentaries are focused on people of color in desperate circumstances.” He wanted to see what their experience was like in a more affluent, middle-class setting. And he happened to live in a town that has a record of trying, if not always succeeding to bridge the gap. If not here, where? Not everyone is comfortable seeing mixed results, but the series presents the unvarnished truth.
As an older white male, James knew the experiences of kids of color were different from his. But he has a track record of telling such stories and his goal as a filmmaker is always threefold: to understand people’s lives, tell their stories with empathy, and in the process, “thwart easy judgments” by viewers.
Yet, he pointed out, white privilege in this case proved useful. Because he’s an established filmmaker who knows the system, he had a much easier time attracting funding, which made the project possible. To overcome his deficits as an older white guy, he put together a team of diverse — and much younger — filmmakers who could relate to the kids they followed.
Real institutional change looms over the series and also found its way into the conversation.
“If things are going to change,” James said, “whites have to be more than ‘allies.’ They have to do more than live in a community like Oak Park and send their kids to a diverse school. You are a good person for doing so, but that won’t change the world. We have to do more.”
Later, two of the series’ subjects, Grant Lee and Charles Donalson, joined the banter onstage. Meyerson asked, “Did you ever imagine being part of something like this?” Donalson immediately volleyed, “‘The Truman Show’ is my favorite movie.” Poised and sharp, Lee and Donalson got some of the evening’s biggest laughs and applause.
When Meyerson asked, “What do you want people to take away from this series?” Lee, the shy, charmingly awkward biracial freshman in the series, replied succinctly and confidently as a current OPRF senior, “The problem of equity is not solved by diversity.”
Donalson, the former junior Spoken Word Poetry phenom who as an OPRF grad is looking for “a wider platform” for his verbal creativity, said that after watching the series he saw things about himself back then that he is trying to change. It would be great if white viewers recognized that about themselves, he added.
Asked what he is working on these days, Donalson replied, “Trying to change the world.”
James noted that since the film has been released, he has enjoyed getting to know the kids he didn’t get to follow during the making of the film.
“They’re a gas to hang out with,” he said.
Meyerson took that moment to exact his revenge.
“It’s an old term,” he informed the youngsters, “that means fun.”
And indeed it was.
To hear the entire interview go to ChicagoPublicSquare.com: