In Episode 4 of America to Me, a particularly self-possessed high school senior named Jada Buford takes her physics teacher, Aaron Podolner, to task. Podolner, who is young and white and well-meaning, occasionally oversteps in his efforts to ingratiate himself to black students like Buford. “When I see black students in my class, I label it as an extra priority,” Podolner tells her after class one afternoon. Buford wastes little time offering a corrective to that, saying, “Just see us as students, [not], ‘This is my black student. I’m gonna have to shuck and jive with her.’”
It’s a dramatic exchange, but it is entirely unscripted. America to Me, directed by the Oscar-nominated Steve James, of Hoop Dreams fame, is a visceral and vital docuseries that aired on Starz earlier this year. Had it aired a generation or two ago, it might have been venerated as an event miniseries on a par with Roots or Ken Burns’s The Civil War, the kind of once-in-an-era insight into American identity that mandates family viewing at home and gets recorded by teachers and shown at next-day assemblies. But somehow, in 2018—an age in which online word of mouth can outmuscle corporate marketing and millions of people are desperate to know where our country is headed—this epic focused on the intersecting lives of select students at a wildly diverse (and divided) suburban Chicago high school couldn’t compete with more sensational longform nonfiction.
Maybe potential viewers worried America to Me—which never managed to distinguish itself in the ratings, and still can’t claim a stand-alone Wikipedia page—would be preachy or position itself as a referendum on President Donald Trump. But as it happens, James and his crew shot their footage and interviews with kids, parents, faculty, and administrators throughout the 2015-16 school year, when Chicago native Barack Obama was still in office. America to Me was, ostensibly, filmed during the ultimate stretch of our romance with the nation’s first black commander in chief and a collective sigh of relief that the Great Recession had, in fact, receded.
But to then–Oak Park and River Forest High freshman Grant Lee, junior Chanti Relf, sophomore Brendan Barrette, senior Jada Buford, and the eight other teens James and Co. shadowed, there is unease. Black Lives Matter is ascendant, setting off touchy debates in the halls of OPRF and at behind-the-scenes school board meetings about inclusion and privilege. Nonwhite students are battling institutional biases that predated Obama or even their parents’ lifetimes. Their white counterparts are growing more self-aware about the school’s double standards, but are given little guidance from district officials about how to repair perceived differences in order to realize the singular potential of such an integrated student body. It’s almost as if this sample size of everyday adolescents shared some kind of extraordinary prescience about our culture’s latest reckoning.
Or maybe, as America to Me illustrates, kids—and at 14-18 years old, they are still that—are remarkably intuitive and sensitive, more curious than jaded and far less self-involved than we give them credit for. Junior Diane Barrios-Smith comes from a family of dual heritage (white and Mexican), has two moms who are estranged, and struggles with lifelong depression and body-image issues; freshman Caroline Robling-Griest seems superficially consumed by grades and extracurricular success, but is deeply motivated by having witnessed her family’s financial ups and downs; and Jada is combative at times with teachers and peers, but it’s out of urgency to create art and engage in dialogue that advances fair treatment of minorities.
Kids are also, naturally, kids. Grant swoons after a spontaneous connection with a cute girl at a freshman dance; senior Gabe Townsell weeps after a surprising loss in a wrestling tournament; sophomore Tiara Oliphant and her girlfriends giggle and sing along to videos on their smartphones; and junior Ke’Shawn Kumsa exudes charisma and volatility as he plays class clown in teacher Jessica Stovall’s English class one moment and gets suspended for an on-campus fight the next. The heady, net effect is a 21st century American addendum to the kind of child-achievement observation found in Michael Apted’s milestone Up series. Only James’s miniseries inverts Apted’s formula (and, to an extent, turns his Hoop Dreams technique upside down), affording us infinite perspective on the society we’ve inherited by zooming in on a finite moment in these students’ lives.
Still, the commencement and conclusion of that school year serve as a narrative spine, and we take the leaps in the participants’ lives along with them. Junior Terrence Moore (Tiara Oliphant’s nephew) overcomes his learning disability well enough to see a path toward independence, and demonstrates an innate gift for mixed-medium artwork reflecting his love of hip-hop. Witty and wise junior Charles Donalson leads his slam-poetry squad to the finals of a regional tournament. Caroline Robling falls a bit shy of claiming a prestigious science award, but appears ready to recover from growing pains and experience true self-discovery. These aren’t spoilers, because there are no story lines or contrivances or conveniences taken. America to Me is, by James’s design, a mirror for how the world risks spinning without stopping to notice these kids’—or their parents and advocates’—place in it, as if they somehow weren’t the point.
Ms. Stovall and a handful of featured grown-ups, including school board president Jackie Moore, are fearless in both their confrontational approach to systemic instrangience and candor during interviews. The intellectual remove and careerist calculation of so many school and community leaders (neither then–district superintendent Steven Isoye nor principal Nate Rouse agreed to be interviewed) is America to Me’s most dire warning. Informal powwows among teachers and documented committee meetings exemplify the degrees of disconnect between quasi-political appointees, their academic charges, and even the most well-intentioned educators themselves. (“I can’t fix that shit,” English teacher Paul Noble, who is white, says of students’ varied socioeconomic backgrounds, “but I know some of what’s happening is caused by us.”) The objective takeaway is that marginalized students’ ambitions can often be superseded and sabotaged by the careerism, fear, and slow-footedness of the adults designated to help.
America to Me lays bare adult biases and failures of accountability while giving a group of budding young adults agency to express the simultaneous indefatigableness and vulnerability of youth. Even if its initial airing wasn’t a unifying television event, America to Me beckons you on demand, because this oughta-be milestone’s most quintessentially American attribute is the fact that, of everything broadcast this year, it’s the most riveting binge watch of them all.