The Parent Imperfect had many excuses not to do it, but, last Thursday night I went to the Boston Public Library for a showing of Episode 4 of the America to me series now showing on Starz. The series is a kind of cinema verité documentary about racial dynamics in a high school in Oak Park, IL. Calling it “Reality TV” would cheapen it way too much, but the series takes a deep dive into the reality of this particular school.
Why would over 250 people (including a good number of people whom I recognized as busy parents) show up at the library on a Thursday night to see a TV show? Because this is not just another TV show, and somebody did a great job of putting the event together and promoting it, that’s why.
The event was part of a nationwide tour to promote the use of the film in communities. The key partner here in Boston was The Boston School Finder (BSF), a new web tool that describes itself as a tool to help Boston parents find a good school for their children. If you’re wondering why the producers of this tour chose an app as a Boston partner, welcome to 2018. When the tour director explained to the audience how it all happened, she recounted that her primary contact in Boston told her that she needed to speak to BSF’s Executive Director, Latoya Gayle. The rest is history.
It also seemed like City Year was somehow in the mix, as they had a table at the entrance and dozens of fresh City Year recruits were in attendance. The organizers of the national tour clearly provided some resources and professional help to make this event happen, but Ms. Gayle and her BSF team also deserve a lot of credit for pulling off an impressive event. There was a reception beforehand at the Lenox Hotel, with free food and soft drinks (for the alcohol, you paid), which I’m sure didn’t hurt the turnout. Somehow I don’t think that the Lenox threw that party for free.
The Rabb Lecture Hall at BPL is a great place to see a film. After taking some time to get the capacity crowd into their seats, Ms. Gayle introduced the show by emphasizing the importance of all children getting a quality education, and suggesting that we need to evaluate our political leaders based on whether or not they are serious about delivering on that equity promise. That was a great message and a good intro to the film.
America to me follows several students and their families through a year in the life of Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF). All the publicity says that the school is in Chicago, but it is actually in Oak Park, IL, a relatively prosperous, close-in suburb of Chicago. Oak Park is known as a diverse, politically progressive community. It seemed more like Cambridge than any part of Boston, and the women sitting in front of me (who were from Cambridge) agreed. The school resembled what I know of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the public high school in that city.
If Episode 4 is any indication, Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and many other films, and his crew did a great job on this series. After struggling with the school administration to get access to OPRF, they managed to find some very compelling young people to give life to this story. The parents of those students also play important roles.
In essence, the message is, “Even in this very progressive, well-resourced public school, young people of color and their families face some very daunting challenges. Those challenges are rooted in both the culture of the school, and in the implicit and explicit biases of members of the school community, even those who consider themselves to be very aware of racial issues.” Most of the hundreds of hours of filming was done in the school or at the home of students, but the cameras do follow one young man trick-or-treating with his little brother on Halloween and another as he accompanies the school marching band on a long-awaited trip to a Disney facility (much to the dismay of his wrestling coach).
The young people emerge as complicated characters, rather than the cardboard figures that we get in some documentaries. The viewer sees their pain and frustration, as well as many moments of joy and happiness. One student can’t perform in an important improv competition because he received a three-day out-of-school suspension for, in his words, “walking while black.” Another young woman who seems particularly affected by the academic pressures at the school is not chosen for a poetry slam team that seems like the most important thing in the world to her. A male student who does make the slam team recites a poem on camera that bares his intensely felt emotions about his missing father. That poem left both the student audience at the school and the BPL audience in stunned silence. This is the same youth who was bantering with a barber ten minutes earlier about how he wanted his hair cut.
In a particularly excruciating scene, a white teacher who fashions himself as highly aware when it comes to racial issues, sits down with two students of color (one of them the aforementioned poet) to ask how he, the teacher, is doing in class. The resulting conversation summarizes the message of the film in a way that no narration ever could. I’d love to know how the man experiences seeing himself in this film.
After the lights went on, there was a panel discussion moderated by Meghan Irons of the Boston Globe. She’s done some great writing on education and many other issues in Boston, and was a perfect moderator. The panel featured the director of Episode 4 and Boston education leaders, but the highlight was the presence of one of the young men from Oak Park who appears in this episode (the wrestler who opted to go on the Disney trip with the band). It was great to hear his perspective on the issues addressed in the film.
America to me is not the definitive film on racism in the U.S. today, nor does it capture the challenges facing public education in urban areas without the resources of an Oak Park, IL. Episode 4 was, however, a very engaging telling of the an important story happening at one quite unusual high school in one equally unusual community. It offers a special invitation to people who think they have overcome their/our racism to take a moment to question that assumption.
The show must have had an effect on me, as I signed up to have showings of future episodes at my house. The producers are organizing these “watch groups” to generate discussion around the series. I won’t be able to screen them all, but I will do a couple of showings. If you’re in Boston and interested in joining a group to check out an episode, comment here or contact me some other way, and I’ll let you know when I’ll be doing showings. If you get Starz, or are up for the On Demand fee, you can also watch America to me, in the comfort of your own home. I recommend it.