America is in the midst of an identity crisis. A nation supposedly built on a foundation of equality, acceptance and opportunity is currently masked by the ugly light of hate, bigotry and hopelessness. Pop culture is attempting to help Americans understand what is happening to their country. Sacha Baron Cohen tries to expose the ugly underbelly of contemporary America with his new HBO series titled “Who is America?,” in which he disguises himself to ask politicians, public figures and everyday Americans about their often insulting or ridiculous views. Rapper Childish Gambino offers a response to Cohen’s titular question with the song “This is America,” a song whose video artfully examines the problems that Black people face in America.
“America to Me” offers a more personalized commentary than either of these, and it is not shy in proclaiming its purpose. At the end of Starz’s 10-part docuseries, “America to Me,” a short excerpt from a Langston Hughes poem fills up the screen. “O, yes, I say it plain,” it begins. “America never was, America to me, And yet I swear this oath — America will be!” Hughes, a Black writer and activist who was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, is talking about how he feels as if he is a stranger living in his own country. America is supposed to be a place where anybody can succeed, yet as a Black man, Hughes does not feel like he is enjoying the benefits of living in America — at least not yet.
It is the perfect sentiment to end the premiere episode of “America to Me,” a series that for one school year followed students attending Oak Park and River Forest High School (O.P.R.F.) in suburban Chicago. In an area that the series makes a point of telling viewers is young and liberal, O.P.R.F. appears to be a diverse school succeeding in addressing and highlighting that diversity. The school is 55-percent white and 27-percent Black, and through research and meetings the administration seems to recognize disparities between their Black and white students and want to repair them. None of the administration will talk to the filmmakers about that research, and director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) tells the audience that the principal and superintendent of the school didn’t even want the film to be made.
This alone shows exactly why it is so important that this documentary was made. People know this country has institutionalized racism and blatant disparities between races, but nobody really wants to talk about it. As school board member Dr. Jackie Moore points out, “If you’re feeling as though you can’t be honest or you’re afraid to say what you’re feeling because there’s a camera there and we’re talking about race, what camera’s in your head when you’re going through your day?”
While the adults in power may not be willing to talk about race or the role it plays in everyday life, the students of O.P.R.F. certainly have a lot to say. The series excels in showing the parallel between Black students who deal with disadvantages related to their race and the normal, awkward adolescent experience of going to high school. In one scene, sophomore Tiara is shown talking about the pressures of living with her sister. Tiara’s sister has a son at O.P.R.F. whom the school has essentially given up on. She says her sister wants her to succeed more than anything because she could not get her son to do the same. Not soon after this, Tiara is seen auditioning for the choir, and then jumping up and down in the hallway because the boy she auditioned in front of has been her crush since seventh grade.
Little moments like these are why the documentary is so effective. It shows how although O.P.R.F. isn’t necessarily separate: The students are anything but equal. At school, the only thing white students have to worry about is a quiz they have coming up or running into their crush or what friend to sit with in class. Black students are faced with all of this, along with the added pressure of being treated differently due to the color of their skin and what that has meant for them for years. Race is ingrained in every aspect of O.P.R.F., and one teacher points out that “no space in this school is race neutral.” Some instances are more ingrained, such as the tendencies of kids of the same race to sit with each other in the cafeteria. Others appear to be blatant racism. In one scene, a school administrator explains how the primarily Black cheerleading squad has to perform on the edge of the field while the mostly white drill team does their routine front and center. As junior Charles points out with frustration: “Everything is made for white kids, because this school was made for white kids, because this country was made for white kids.”
“America to Me” tells the story of a racist America through young voices that are too often belittled and ignored. These high schoolers have no problem telling America that they feel as if they don’t belong. O.P.R.F. may just be one high school, but it is reflective of something much bigger. Even integrated, progressive schools are struggling to provide an equal experience for their black and white students. The first step to addressing the problem is talking about it, something that clearly many people do not want to do. “America to Me” is pushing that conversation forward, forcing both the people at O.P.R.F. and the audience watching them to listen to a discussion about race and go on to start one themselves.