This is the first in a series of reaction pieces to each episode in the 10-part docuseries, “America to Me,” currently airing each Sunday at 8 p.m. on the Starz channel.
‘The room numbers — that’s deep’
The first scene of the first episode shows an African-American male student negotiating the terms of an interview about the explosive Black Lives Matter assembly that happened at OPRF during Black History Month in 2015.
The assembly was held exclusively for African-American students — the school’s auditorium, at least for that day, transformed into a protected space where black students could vent on their own terms about the way they are treated at the high school.
At the time, the assembly provoked a harsh reaction from some community members and students (many if not most of them, presumably, white). James includes those voices later in the episode, but only as disembodied internet commenters. “It sounds like treason,” one comment reads, referencing the assembly. “#BlackRacismMatters” reads another.
“Did you go to the Black Lives Matter assembly?” someone behind the camera asks an unnamed black male student.
“Wait, I don’t get to ask the questions?” the student shoots back.
“Did we go over answering in complete sentences?” a voice from behind the camera asks another student — an African-American female.
“I naturally do that when I talk, so umm,” the student responds.
There’s a lesson in this opening scene that frames the remainder of the first episode. James and his team masterfully reveal their own inadequacies and far-from-nimble attempts to engender trust between themselves and the students, who are highly sophisticated at jostling for control of their own narratives.
That the filmmakers have, from the outset, ceded narrative control to the students is obvious — it’s an exercise in active listening that is a staple of Steve James’ documentaries.
The first scene, however, also works to disarm any whites who may come into the viewing experience with certain preconceptions, namely that they’ll be made the villains in a great racial morality play. That’s obviously not the case.
But there is racial tension nonetheless and James shows how this often plays out, in very real terms, when he interviews the whip-smart Ke’Shawn Kumsa, an African-American student who is both supremely self-confident and dangerously vulnerable (Aside: at certain points in the episode, Kumsa wears a technicolor basketball jersey; he looks like he could be the regal subject of a Kehinde Wiley painting).
“What’s the big deal about Oak Park?” Kumsa asks, starkly announcing his position outside of the great liberal tradition that the village has built for itself since the 1970s.
James, a longtime Oak Parker whose kids went to OPRF, explains in a disembodied voiceover that the tradition that Kumsa dismisses has to do with Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway and Percy Julian (whose “home was firebombed twice,” James points out).
But the biggest deal of them all, James notes, is the tradition that most Oak Parkers pride themselves on; it has to do with the fact that the village resisted the phenomenon of white flight — of whites who moved, en masse, to other places when blacks started moving next door.
“The white people who fled were mostly older and conservative,” James explains. “The white people who moved in were younger and more liberal, wanting to be part of the American experiment in true diversity.”
What Oak Park since then has learned, however, is that “diversity is not the same as equity.”
Therein lies the crux of what James and his team attempt to explore. How can a bastion of liberalism, a national model of racial integration, maintain such stark racial disparities when it comes to how it educates its young people?
How is Kumsa, a young black man who, according to his mother, has lived in Oak Park since he was 3 years old (whose own mother, we’ll see in the next episode, attended OPRF) be so estranged from a liberal tradition that was expressly meant to benefit blacks like him?
The irony frames the whole film series and is announced in the film’s title, which is pulled from a 1935 Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again.” The poem is Whitmanesque in a technical and stylistic sense and also hauntingly contemporary.
The poem’s first stanza (“Let America be America again / Let it be the dream it used to be / Let it be the pioneer on the plain / Seeking a home where he himself is free.”) echoes a chant by an unseen OPRF student on the first day of school (“We are OPRF … we embrace our diversity and our uniqueness, we thrive on opportunities given to us”).
And both instances of idealistic rhetoric, whether we like it or not, echo this famous claim of a glorified, but mythical pastime: “Make America Great Again.” To which a voice in Hughes’ poem replies, “America never was America to me.”
Traditions, even great ones, can result in blind spots if the kind of criticism that anchors Hughes’ poem isn’t taken into account. But how to confront that blindness is easier said than done.
Race at OPRF, the film shows, is lived as an amoral fact. It’s a series of real-life propositions, split-second decisions, day-to-day tradeoffs. Race is a conundrum built atop layers and layers of decisions, some good, some bad, that actual, flesh-and-blood people are forced to navigate in the here and now.
While viewing the first episode, I felt like the biracial freshman, Grant Lee, who gets lost (literally and metaphorically) trying to navigate OPRF (that massive, racially-charged maze). Lee not only has to contend with his own shyness and inexperience, he also has to contend with upper classmen who deliberately give him wrong directions to his algebra class for kicks (which is a non-racial hazing ritual at the school).
Aaron Podolner, a physics teacher at OPRF, describes the injustice of it all.
“The room numbers,” he says. “That’s deep. The school was built in 17 different parts or 17 different times. It’s just terribly obvious who a freshman is, because they have this vacant look in their eyes, almost a sense of unfairness. They’re like, ‘How come 289 is not next to 288?”
That’s race, in a nutshell.