America to Me: Steve (Hoop Dreams) James on the Making of Ten-Part Series

America To Me is the latest work by Oscar–nominated and Sundance Jury Prize–winning documentary filmmaker Steve James (Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters).

The first five episodes of the ten-part series, which will air on the Starz network later this year, were presented in succession at the 2018 Sundance Film Fest.

Alongside segment directors Bing Liu (whose film Minding the Gap is in this year’s U.S. Documentary Competition), Rebecca Parrish, and Kevin Shaw, James tracks a year in the life of Oak Park and River Forest High School, a school renowned for its diversity that nonetheless struggles to provide an equitable education for all of its students, particularly its black and biracial students. James and his colleagues examine issues that prevail throughout America’s institutions and the culture at large.

James talked to the audience about how the team went about planning and shooting this ambitious project. The subjects went through an organized casting process—something James said he’s never done before for his films. They interviewed 40 kids and their parents, primarily black and biracial students and families.  They didn’t cast any white kids until the beginning of the school year.

“Out of those 40 we narrowed it down to 13 kids that we thought were the best candidates. Then we brought in the producers and segment directors and they reviewed all the tapes and had a really long conversation about who appealed to you and who didn’t, in general and also personally, as in, ‘I’d really love to follow that kid,’” James said.

The original group of seven students changed into twelve over the course of the year: “We were looking for a variety of academy experiences, a variety of different classes, in terms of grade levels.”

“We wanted to make sure we had biracial kids in the mix, because today that’s a significant thing going on for kids who are biracial in terms of finding their sense of identity in this culture—and Oak Park is a magnet for biracial families; it has something like six times the national average of biracial families.”

James insisted that the families be present for these early interviews, both for insight into the students and for actually exploring on camera. “I knew that we were going to want to go home with the kids, that we weren’t going to just confine ourselves to school. And as it goes on in the second half, the parents continue to play significant roles,” he said.

The next five episodes, which are stronger, “are edited but they’re not done done,” James said. “They’ll be ready for the Starz launch, which might sync with the beginning of the next school year in the fall.”

 

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