“America to Me,” the docuseries about Oak Park and River Forest High School’s historic challenges with racial equity, may have aired two years ago, but one of its stars is still living with the film’s implications.
Viewers who tuned into the 10-part docuseries, which aired on Starz in 2018, may remember Jada Buford, the precocious aspiring filmmaker who is often seen challenging the racial assumptions held by her fellow OPRF students and even some adults while working on a film project of her own.
“Why do you think that dark is considered bad?” Buford pointedly asks one fellow student she’s interviewing.
Several years later, Buford is still asking those hard questions and challenging stereotypes. The 22-year-old graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in May, with a degree in Media, Journalism and Film Communications. She minored in African American Studies.
On Sept. 2, Buford finished a prestigious Television Academy Foundation fellowship in documentary/nonfiction television. Due to the pandemic, the program was administered remotely, with Buford completing seminars and virtual meetings from her home in River Forest.
With that career development under her belt, Buford has more time to think about her future plans.
“Right now, I’m trying to figure out if I want to be in Los Angeles or New York,” she said, adding that she’s looking into graduate degree programs in film production.
Buford said that being in “America to Me,” and witnessing director Steve James and his co-directors during the making of the production influenced her decision to pursue documentary filmmaking.
“Seeing Steve and the other directors produce something with me in it inspired me to do my own thing,” she said.
Buford said the recognition she’s received from being in the docuseries is somewhat bittersweet. Before the pandemic, when she’d travel to places in Washington, D.C., such as the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, people would recognize her from the Starz production.
“I didn’t think I’d be dealing with that after high school,” she said.
Overall, she said, she’s been satisfied with how the documentary presented her to the world, even though she realizes she can’t necessarily control lazy stereotypes generated by others.
“I made sure to express my concerns about not being perceived as the angry Black woman during the film and even afterwards,” Buford said. “I was satisfied that I wasn’t shown in that light and that many of us were presented in multiple dimensions.”
Still, Buford said, she came across those critiques that traded in the trope of the angry Black woman when discussing her presence in the docuseries. She said she understands this reaction, since she’s lived and studied it for so long. In fact, she hopes to explore the issue in depth in her own documentary films.
“Right now, I’m researching Black narratives in TV and how they affect how we’re seen in the world,” Buford said. “A lot of the content we see is created by white people, specifically white men, so there’s a lot of unlearning to do.”
Speaking of learning and unlearning, does she think the villages of Oak Park and River Forest learned from “America to Me” or from the recent civil unrest related to George Floyd’s murder in May?
“No,” Buford said, without hesitation.
“I feel [the anti-racism demonstrations among whites in the area] are publicity stunts. People don’t want to be seen being anti-Black and are trying to appear anti-racist, but that should show in the work and the sense of urgency. I know students at OPRF and recent graduates who are still dealing with people saying the n— word or the fact that Black students have to compromise their learning environment, because they don’t know how to deal with those situations of whites saying that word or teachers not creating safe spaces for Black students.
I think [the film and recent events] have brought awareness, but as far as actions to change stuff? It hasn’t happened yet. I’m hopeful, though.”