Saturday, December 5, 2020

America to Me - made for TV








KeShawn and Jessica Stovall


KeShawn and Jessica Stovall

Charles (middle) and Chanti

Jada and Tyrone Williams


Left to right, Jada, Charles, and Steve James

Steve James with Field producer Janea Smith








AMERICA TO ME - made for TV           A                                                                                 USA  (10-part episode, 630 mi)  2018  d:  Steve James

A brilliant racial exposé made by the director of Hoop Dreams (1994), where it’s hard to think of anything else out there that reveals with such complexity and depth the sheer magnitude of the racial problem in America, where whites have all the built-in advantages and are quick to criticize any actions that alter the status quo.  This is a mammoth ten-part 630 minute made-for-TV series divided into nearly 60 minute segments, where a film crew follows a dozen students at Oak Park and River Forest High School during the 2015-16 year, coming into fruition only after a brouhaha develops when a Black Lives Matter assembly only invites black kids, causing an outrage around town for causing racial divisions, generating “all lives matter” protestations, with parents,  administrators, and a school board captured in animated discussions afterwards over the ramifications, including a motion to allow a film crew to follow a select group of hand-picked students to explore this very hotly contested issue.  While the Asian Superintendent and black Principal voted against the idea and refused to participate with the filmmakers, the board agreed to allow filmmakers complete access to students, classrooms, teachers, coaches, and various school activities.  Using a contemporary urban soundtrack that never overshadows but punctuates many of the themes, the family lives of certain students are also explored, offering an extremely personal and intensely revealing view that is rare in cinema today, particularly for such an incendiary subject.  Deserving to be ranked alongside the best television mega-series like Roots in 1977 or The Civil War in 1990, yet it remains criminally underseen, coming at the end of an Obama Presidency that suggests norms have been shattered, but lurking underneath is a fractured disconnect that leaves the nation reeling in separate but unequal opportunities.  Most all of the students in AP Honors classes are white, with high expectations primarily built around those prestigious students, who get the best teachers and receive the most support, followed by honors classes which are also majority white, with a good portion of those students who likely don’t belong, but their parents demand college preparatory classes whether their kids deserve it or not, while there is another tier of majority black students where fundamental academic expectations are not high, as their achievement levels over the years consistently score below that of whites, known as the “achievement gap,” where for decades high-paid administrators have been left scratching their heads wondering how to fix this problem, where nothing seems to work, currently using the tracking system, placing the kids with highest achievement scores in honors and AP classes on track for college, having previously explored the idea of clustering black kids in honors together, so they weren’t so isolated, yet that program was discontinued after white parents fought to spread the diversity around their kid’s classrooms, though the official position was an administrator came out with a study one year that suggested there was no improvement.  There is certainly some question about whether they pulled the plug too quickly on that idea, wondering whether it was given sufficient time to prove itself, but now it is simply viewed as ancient history.  Side by side with academic deficiencies are behavioral issues, as blacks receive more penalties for disciplinary infractions, more suspensions, more drop-outs, leading to a school-to-prison pipeline that concerns the school, but not enough to alter the existing methods, where blacks are simply viewed as more belligerent and “aggressive” than whites, at least in the eyes of the existing school staff making the recommendations.  Curiously, this same perception is viewed on the football field, where a hotbed of racial taunting can be heard from the stands week after week (surprisingly nothing is done about it), but also a sport that actually encourages aggressive over passive behavior, where black kids are more likely to be penalized than whites, with the football coach being told by white officials that the reason for the penalties are his black kids are more “aggressive.” 

The title comes from a Langston Hughes poem, repeated at the beginning of each episode, reiterating “America never was America to me,” (Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes - Poems ...), also used very effectively at the end of a recent Spike Lee film Da 5 Bloods (2020), suggesting the full privileges of freedom and democracy have largely excluded blacks, who have never been allowed to achieve the same equity of treatment, finding racial roadblocks and walls of resistance at every level of society, where the promise of America remains an elusive dream.  In addition to the school administrators, most all of the mostly white AP teachers also refused to participate, as did all of the wealthy white families, where there was a general fear that they would be ridiculed or made to look bad.  That’s not the director’s style, however, as he attended the high school himself along with his children, displaying an extraordinary degree of patience by humanizing each and every featured student in the film through an unscripted three-dimensional lens, favoring authenticity, while also tending to downplay any drama captured by the camera, allowing scenes to speak for themselves, often posing complex and controversial questions, spending the entire length of the film searching for answers.  While the majority of kids chosen were black, part of the reason, according to the director, is that it’s extremely difficult to find white kids who actually have something to say on the subject of race, as they’ve lived their lives relatively unscathed by it.  The school is Oak Park’s lone high school, considered elite, ranked among the top 5% of high schools in the country, graduating 95% of its students, encompassing a racial, economic and cultural mix that reflects the nation as a whole, located in a mostly affluent and progressive suburb bordering on the city of Chicago, attracting families of all races and economic groups, where for most of the kids it feels like a social experiment of racial diversity with 3400 students, 55% white, 27% black, 9% Hispanic, 3% Asian and 6% multiracial.  Wrestling with questions of race and white privilege, and a longing to fit into a school that inherently supports white cultural norms, it’s also about growing up, reflecting the anxiety and multiple pressures placed on teenagers in high school, like trying to live up to the expectations of others, having to continually please others, including a long list of their teacher’s demands, where the students alone are responsible for their own successes and failures, yet feel they can so easily lose themselves in the process.  Much of this explores how to discover your own identity, realizing others see you differently than you see yourself, both an indifferent world of racial insults and societal barriers, but also those in your own family that love you, but may not see you, for whatever reason, leaving you feeling bad about yourself, like you’re doing something wrong.  That emptiness and the blame game is exactly how people without fathers may feel, like it’s all your fault, or homeless students, who can’t relate to all the privileges of others who simply take them for granted, never thinking twice.  Black kids, in particular, have to navigate their way through a self-identity of being black, but also the white world that sees them quite differently, believing they’ll continually underperform academically, or be too loud and aggressive socially, and never be a team player in a world with a majority of whites, with whites never realizing how they’re the ones who aren’t team players, as they don’t welcome others who are different or provide a spirit of inclusiveness, demanding that things be their way, as if that’s the only way.  Black kids are all too aware that the white way is not their way, but they learn to adapt, while whites never have to, remaining casually indifferent.  That’s the ultimate insult, viewed with a feeling of indifference, like you’re not really there, like you don’t matter, which is the true reality of being black in America, remaining invisible, no matter your resumé or qualifications.  That seems to be the heart of the issue, living in a world where black concerns don’t matter, which is the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement.  This becomes particularly evident when the school boards gets bogged down for several months on whether or not to invest millions on an Olympic-sized pool, ignoring the animus coming from outspoken citizens not to ignore their focus on the achievement gap.  

Oak Park is a historic neighborhood, known for producing novelist Ernest Hemingway, while also housing many Frank Lloyd Wright architectural wonders, establishing the city as a cultural reference point.  At a time when many whites revolted against racial integration with blacks in the 60’s, known as white flight, the Oak Park community was known for being socially progressive, as they actually welcomed the racial mix, enacting fair-housing measures, believing diversity would make the community even stronger.  Geographically adjacent to the Chicago Austin and North Lawndale neighborhoods, which have a long history with gang violence and poor schools, there is a dividing line, Austin Blvd, separating two very different worlds.  In the year of filming, for instance, Austin had 70 murders, while Oak Park had only one, which is a primary reason many from Chicago’s West side communities try to get their children into this more prestigious school.  There are strict residency requirements, however, with former FBI agents scrutinizing so-called questionable residency issues.  This issue comes up particularly in sports, with other teams crying foul if a student athlete transfers into Oak Park, giving them a decided advantage.  Historically, one common element of racial prejudice is the assumption that cheating is going on whenever black athletes excel, suggesting they don’t really live in the district.  It’s a common complaint that is almost always unfounded, yet it doesn’t stop parents in the stands from screaming racial epithets at the athletes.  During a state wrestling tournament in Bloomington, Illinois where the Oak Park wrestlers were dominant, the racial profanity coming from the stands was especially repugnant, with coaches having to restrain the kids from responding.  This kind of stuff is not made up but happens spontaneously.  The filmmakers didn’t go into the tournament looking for that behavior, essentially covering a sporting event, with a spotlight shown on several of the kids, but this particularly odious stain of obnoxious behavior hovers over what is otherwise a miraculous effort by the wrestlers themselves, where it’s literally a transforming moment winning a state title, the culmination of lifelong dreams, yet, despite their heroics on the mat, where one kid wrestled the day after his brother was shot and killed, breaking into tears after a hard-fought win, a particularly poignant moment, they are forced to see how others view them in such a profoundly negative and hostile light.  It’s a momentous example of how Oak Park is a microcosm of a larger troubling issue that simply continues to plague America.  This film was made prior to the election of Trump as President, where in the last four years white supremacists have only felt more emboldened to wreak their vitriol of race hatred.  The brilliance of this film is that it challenges white privilege and the notion of progressive and liberal leanings on the issue of race, where good intentions from whites are often met with cringeworthy and disastrous results, creating a systematic paralysis caused by repeated inactions to alter the status quo, leaving black families and students at a loss as to why the school continually refuses to implement needed changes.  A tiny yet typical example reveals the all-black cheerleading team performing at the end of the field near the goal line during football games, while the nearly all-white drill squad performs on the 50-yard line, given greater exposure, while validating their worth.  What message does that send to the cheerleaders and to the black student population?  Literally no one at the school can figure out the obvious inequity?  James includes a state evaluation of the school, revealing administrators are rated near the bottom, suggesting in a normal business model heads needed to roll.  But that doesn’t happen, though the Superintendent bails and takes a position in another school district.  Perhaps most surprising is how the black Principal holds onto his job, where it appears he is a figurehead only, no real power, but an example to hold up and show of community diversity, even if it’s really fake.  Very curious that in a school board meeting, Evanston is used as an example of success in a similarly diverse community with a white majority, where they eliminated the tracking system and the wrath of public outcry to try to equalize test scores.  White parents ordinarily don’t want changes to occur while their children are in school, but are certainly open to it afterwards.  It’s the same thing with each new generation.  Oak Park is like an island, a refuge for the last vestiges of a progressive social setting, but it’s all a mirage, where the amount of energy exerted to maintain the status quo through the years is simply off the charts.   

While some kids are introduced in the first episode, others appear much later, where their personal stories are continually intermixed into the overall narrative, where despite the length, the interest never wanes, as these kids all represent different age groups and experience a variety of social problems that evolve over time.  The profiles of the kids are simply amazing, as we get school and family interactions, offering extremely close and personal views of these kids, which is astonishing.  Easily the one that stood out was Chanti, an Asian-American biracial girl with an Asian mother and a black father, continually reeling from the traumatic effects of a bad relationship, writing some of the most poetically explosive material, yet the trauma, as we find out near the end, is even deeper than suspected, as she seems to relate to a trans lifestyle.  She is one complicated human being, and the film really allows her to explore all the devastating changes in her life that leave her in emotional turmoil.  Somewhat humorous, on the other hand, is a young geeky freshman Grant, seen hopelessly searching for his classes in the opening, yet out of nowhere a surprising relationship develops with a girl who is never seen speaking on camera.  The whole thing was inspired by a single spontaneous moment at a school dance when she grabs him and dances with him, the whole thing caught on film, where he’s simply euphoric afterwards.  Still, he redefines the meaning of taking it slow.  Terrence just breaks your heart, a kid in special education with a mother (Tiara’s overbearing sister) that’s constantly pushing him into college prep classes and what is clearly uncomfortable territory, taking classes where he doesn’t belong, making him feel even more of a stranger to himself, as he’ll never meet his mother’s expectations.  The divide between what she wants and hopes for and who he is just makes your heart sink, as he’s such a sweet kid, but he’s as lost as any kid you’ll ever see onscreen in the entirety of cinema.  The portraits of Tiara and Ke’Shawn reveal the multiple layers of emotional scars, both are so upbeat and positive, yet they’re continually kicked to the curb with endless setbacks, where a similar scenario played out with Ke’Shawn’s mother when she attended the school, described as “terror town,” offering heartbreaking evidence of racial abuse.  Charles, who comes from a broken home (as many of these kids do), is simply amazing at the poetry slam, has supreme confidence in himself, which in high school is rather mystifying, where one wonders how he is so self-assured when everyone else is still trying to figure everything out.  You can’t help but think he’s going to be a success at whatever he decides to be, writing a poem about Malcolm X and Tupac talking about how gentrified heaven is, finding himself feeling perfectly at home in extra-curricular Spoken Word activities, an outlet where blacks (and others) have complete freedom to express themselves, where most poems are about representation, run by two white teachers who wander through the hallways recruiting students.  Band nerd Kendale probably grows the most, so even-keeled and balanced, traversing the white world of band and the black world of wrestling, becoming an all-state wrestler in one of the toughest divisions, where he’s overweight through most of the entire film, but turns into a supreme athlete.  Impossible not to love watching him eat that 18th year old birthday cake, trying to pretend it doesn’t matter after starving himself all year, but O my God does he gobble it down.  Late entries were less successful, where Brendan is about as low key as you can get, yet his take on racial strife happening around him is really significant, adding a whole other dimension to who he really is.  He’s white, has all the breaks, but he’s aware that others don’t have the same opportunities that he has, and his take on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra patrons is spot-on.  His photographic eye was something of a shock, as his developed photos were extremely artistic.  Diane, a proud Mexican-American often mistaken for white, seems more troubled than she really needs to be, never delving into why, as she’s an extraverted and opinionated girl who’s not exactly sure where she fits in, yet she’s confident enough to argue difficult positions publicly and on camera that others shy away from.  The relationships with her two moms seem really complex, especially after their break-up, yet she hangs in there, throwing a sly smile into the camera near the end suggesting everything’s OK.  Jada regularly clashes with white male teachers who actually find her assertions intimidating, so the film department allows her plenty of room to roam the halls and apparently avoid classes, yet also pursue her own interests, while straight A class scholar Caroline can’t figure out who wins a coveted Science award that she obviously believes rightfully belongs to her.  And it probably did, but the secrecy around the winner suggests race may have played into it, awarding it to someone less accomplished, but still deserving. 

Teachers in Oak Park find a lack of collaboration within the school and within the district.  Anytime the status quo is challenged with proposals about how they could do better, with suggestions that the kids deserve better, they continually fall on deaf ears.  Jessica Stovall, a biracial teacher who was raised in rural Wisconsin, is one of the teachers we see working hardest for change.  Winner of a Fulbright Scholarship, visiting New Zealand to discover how the aboriginal Maori culture is integrated into mainstream society, she introduces an academic study called WOVEN aimed at eliminating racial predictability in academic achievement, analyzing why black achievement scores remain below the national average while white scores increasingly elevate over time, actually widening the achievement gap, spending the grant money in her own school district on her own, without school support or feedback, also studying another Chicago Public School where she is greeted warmly and enthusiastically, evaluating ways to improve teaching underperforming kids of color, holding out hope that this could be the means to break through the administrative resistance.  Unfortunately, she was not allowed to use school grounds for her study, or meet with other teachers, with the administration believing this would offer the appearance of acceptance, yet her persistence both in her classroom and on her own time to change these racial perceptions is the central thread of the film.  Yet in ways that are simply heartbreaking, her study is postponed at length before finally being introduced at a school board meeting, but ultimately dismissed by the administration, claiming they would prefer an approach to racial issues that is “rooted in scholarship rather than media.”  But her proposal is a data-driven approach to eliminating racial bias, but they didn’t want that either.  Anyone who observes Stovall in a classroom, exhibiting a rare and unmatched expertise, establishing relations with each and every student, would know immediately that if anyone is qualified to run an equity study, it would be her.  Instead the administration gets involved smearing and belittling her efforts by misattributing quotes from her that were actually said by others, which suggests a lack of scholarship on their part, with Stovall revealing her own frustrations, “I had all these great ideas ‘cause I was just coming back from a really transforming experience in my life, and then it was, like, a total disappointment.”  In the end, Oak Park is only willing to pay lip service to the idea of social change, but when push comes to shove, they refuse to act, so nothing ever changes.  Tyrone Williams is a black AP history teacher, yet one of the unique things that regularly recurs is kids requesting to be removed from his classroom before they’ve even met him, another version of inexplicable white flight.  Perhaps most surprising is there are several almost anonymous black men behind the scenes acting as black school ambassadors in what appears to be unpaid and unwritten positions, like assistant Principals, as they are more visible than the actual Principal, doing this on their own, offering support and leadership role models, helping people transition their way through all the noise, using the big brother role of embracing all under their wing.  Meanwhile, a super-intelligent, female black assistant Principal Dr. Chala Holland offers her comments, which are starkly realistic, fully endorsing reading support services for those that lag behind, but it comes down to a money issue, where the administration doesn’t fully support the concept, as if it represents a blemish on their resumé.  Never truly respected or given the appropriate authority, Holland eventually takes a job as Principal in a different school district that offers pay commensurate to her talent, replaced by a go-along white male who prefers not speaking on camera, already trying to roll back the supportive reading program Holland recommended and many of the things she implemented.  In addition to a surprising paucity of black teachers, there are also commonly felt feelings schoolwide of black disenfranchisement.  Revealingly, the film crew speaks to the kitchen help and janitorial staff, which is almost entirely black, those who have been with the school the longest, arriving at 5 am daily, warmly greeting the students each day, yet they are continually passed over for promotions, as whites regularly run the cash registers for lunchroom services, a monetary position where blacks throughout the years are simply not trusted.  The school, of course, predictably counters that no racism or favoritism is involved.

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