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Steve James confronts the conundrum of being a white documentarian telling a story about race

How the celebrated filmmaker has changed his approach to his work.

Jada Buford, one of the subjects of America to Me
Jada Buford, one of the subjects of America to Me.
Kartemquin Films/Starz
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

If you want to observe American society in microcosm, you can’t beat high school — something filmmakers have known for a long time. From Grease to Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club to Clueless, fictional films have long found ripe material in the hotbed of social interactions.

And documentarians, especially, have thrived in the high school setting, which allows for the subtle examination of class, race, politics, domestic life, and a lot more through the same lens. (Frederick Wiseman, for instance, made two of his best documentaries in high schools.)

The latest project in the “genre” comes from Steve James, one of America’s most prominent and respected documentarians, who goes to high school to think about America in 2018. For America to Me, a 10-part Starz series that premieres on August 26, James and his team spent a year at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF), an elite, racially diverse public high school in a suburb west of Chicago. It’s known for being one of the most progressive schools in the region.

James became interested in filming in the high school because he lives in Oak Park, and his own children went there. In 2015, the school garnered national attention when it hosted a Black Lives Matter assembly that only the school’s black students were permitted to attend.

And that piqued James’s interest. His movies — two of which have been nominated for Oscars, Hoop Dreams in 1995 and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail in 2018 — are notable for their empathetic and intimate portraits that often highlight the complex ways race and class intersect in America.

Many of his films, like 2011’s The Interrupters (about three Chicago men working to stop violence in their community) and 2014’s Life Itself (about the late film critic Roger Ebert), focus on stories based in the Chicago area. So as a subject, OPRF was a good fit.

Summer 2018 TCA Press Tour - Day 4
James with two of the subjects of America to Me, Jada Buford and Charles Donalson III, in July 2018.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Over 10 episodes of America to Me, named for a line in a poem by Langston Hughes, James and his crew follow 12 OPRF students, along with several administrators and teachers, through the 2015–’16 school year.

The series is frank about difficulties the filmmakers encountered as they tried to capture their characters’ stories, and it’s self-aware about how race and implicit bias in particular affects the students’ educational experiences, even in a school whose population isn’t considered at-risk.

I recently spoke with James in New York about making a series like America to Me as a white filmmaker, the responsibility he feels toward younger filmmakers of color, what he’s noticed in teens today, and why it can be hard to get people interested in stories where the subjects aren’t obviously in peril.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

A few months ago, I heard you say that you were concerned people might be put off by the fact that none of the kids in America to Me are in some kind of immediate peril.

Steve James

When I say this I am pointing the finger squarely at myself, but so many documentaries focus on people at the margins racially, socioeconomically, and so on. Those stories need to be told, and we need to grapple with them.

But they also get told because they’re dramatic and powerful, and if you’re a documentary filmmaker, you want to tell those kinds of stories, right?

When we started America to Me, I felt like for me, personally and politically and otherwise, it was time to want to look at other kinds of stories. That was part of the appeal. But I worried that may not be perceived as a virtue by viewers who are used to being fed stories about people in peril, living in besieged communities under the threat of violence or abject poverty.

Alissa Wilkinson

Which is a lot of what the documentary field is today?

Steve James

Yes, yes.

Kendale McCoy, one of the subjects of America to Me
Kendale McCoy, one of the subjects of America to Me.
Kartemquin Films/Starz

Alissa Wilkinson

How do you come at this as a documentarian?

Steve James

I am the overall director of this series, but we have three segment directors who are incredibly talented, younger, multiethnic filmmakers. From the get-go, it was vitally important to me that if I was going to try and tell this story — even though it’s about my community, a place I’ve lived for a long time — that the only way to honestly tell these young people’s stories was to have that kind of team in place for it.

Alissa Wilkinson

Who were those segment directors?

Steve James

Each of us divided the kids up to follow and follow the stories through the year. The first segment director, Kevin Shaw, is an African-American filmmaker I’ve known for some years but had never worked with. He’s done really terrific work over the years. Kevin followed Kendale and KeShawn and Gabe.

The second was Bing Liu, whose film Minding the Gap is maybe the documentary of the year. I hired Bing to be a part of this project, and he did a phenomenal job following stories. He followed Charles, Jada, and Grant.

And then Rebecca Parrish, a really talented filmmaker who did a strong film called Radical Grace a few years ago. She followed Chanti, Caroline, and Diane.

So this was a huge collaborative undertaking.

Alissa Wilkinson

As the overall director, how do you work with them?

Steve James

We divided and conquered. I followed three kids as well: Terrence, Tiara, and Brendan, the white kid. I also followed a lot of the administration. My basement was the production center — I live three blocks from the school — and we kept the gear there, so it became the place where we would come together.

They like to joke that if they came back from a shoot and it was late, the last thing they wanted was for me to come downstairs and check in on them, because they just wanted to drop the gear off and get out of there. But I would always come down and say, “What happened today?”

There was a lot of communication. We helped each other a lot, I think. I shot with every single kid during the course of the film, and I think Kevin did as well. We would help each other out when somebody couldn’t shoot. So in the field, it was this hugely collaborative enterprise.

When we got into editing, the filmmakers would weigh in on cuts, but at that point, it became more me working with this incredible edit team where we were all just cutting madly for a long time to put this monster together.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s huge! It’s 10 hours! I’ve seen half of it.

Steve James

Are you looking forward to watching the rest?

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes, I am!

Steve James

... Or are you like, I’ll get this article done and I’ll just —

Alissa Wilkinson

No, no — the last episode I saw was the fifth one, where the whole thing feels like it pivots from one perspective to another that we didn’t even realize we hadn’t been seeing, and you realize how self-aware it is about what it’s doing. In a feature-length documentary, you don’t always have the ability to shift focus like that without it feeling contrived.

Steve James

Yes. And I feel like the second half is the strongest part of the series, because the stories deepen. That means the series becomes more incisive, in terms of its analysis of situations in the school. There’s also really great payoffs to the kids’ stories and whatever.

2018 Sundance Film Festival - ‘America To Me’ (Episodes 1-3)
Kevin Shaw, Rebecca Parish, Grant Lee, Steve James, Kendale McCoy, Jada Buford, Bing Liu, and Jess Stovall at the Sundance premiere of America to Me.
Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

You’ve been making documentaries for so long, and obviously you’ve evolved as a person and a filmmaker over those decades. But you know this school. You know the community. And you know the terrain. You know how to make a film. So what did you learn from this particular project?

Steve James

One thing really surprised me — not like it was a shock, it all made sense, but I didn’t go into the film necessarily thinking this would be the case — is how amazingly sophisticated and insightful these kids are about their place in this world, and what’s wrong with this world, and what’s right with this world. When I was in high school, I was a complete idiot. I was a complete idiot until at least my sophomore year of college.

I’m just amazed at their insight. With many of them, it’s easy to forget how young they are because of how bright and sophisticated they are. They’re self-aware. They are so committed to wanting things to be different.

I think that’s been a hallmark of this generation. We’re seeing it in so many ways right now.

I feel like these kids are the future in so many ways. This isn’t necessarily fair, but a lot of the kids who will be leaders in the world tomorrow are largely going to come from middle-class places like Oak Park. For a lot of kids who grow up on the West Side or South Side of Chicago, they’re just trying to survive, fighting to survive — not to live or die, necessarily, but just to keep their head above water and make it through. These Oak Park kids have their own kinds of hardships. But clearly, they’re going places.

I also think some people make an assumption about kids of color who grow up in a place like Oak Park: “They’ve made it, they’re fine, we don’t have to worry about them. What do they have to complain about?”

So one of the reasons I wanted to do this series was to not just to tell the stories of those kinds of kids, but also to look at a place like Oak Park. If the problems we face as a nation were going to be solved anywhere, they’d be in a place like Oak Park. But when you watch, you realize just how deep-seated institutionalized racism and societal racism runs in this country.

I’ve often felt that if you really want to understand the depth of what is going on, you don’t look at the worst-case examples. You look at what people would perceive to be the best-case examples. That’s where you then get past all the obvious stuff: poverty, underfunded schools, violence. Those shouldn’t be diminished. But when you take those away and you still have kids who are not meeting the state average for 75 years in ACT scores, then the question is, what’s going on there?

Alissa Wilkinson

What you say about their generation rings true. There are examples like the Parkland kids, of course. But I’ve taught college students for the past 10 years, and I feel like I’ve seen a big shift lately in how informed they are when they show up in my classroom.

Steve James

You’ve seen that, too? That’s a great position to see that.

Alissa Wilkinson

They used to be more inclined to talk about pop culture and celebrities, but now they want to talk about social and political issues. I haven’t figured out quite why yet. I don’t know if it’s because they have had access to the internet, or maybe because they’re expected to have opinions from an earlier age.

Steve James

I don’t have the answers. I’m too old to know. But, I do feel like when Obama became president in 2008, that played a role. Then to go where we went politically was a huge slap in the face for a lot of people. But I think it was particularly significant for young people and young people of color to just think, “Well, wait a second, where are we going here?”

There’s this feeling among them that older generations have failed to address things well. I think they have genuine, well-earned anxiety about the future: the future of work in this country, the future of where we’re going, and what kind of world they’re going to inherit, on all kinds of levels. I think it really hit home recently for them.

Chanti Relf, one of the subjects of America to Me
Chanti Relf, one of the subjects of America to Me.
Kartemquin Films/Starz

Alissa Wilkinson

They’re also used to being filmed!

Steve James

Yes, they are.

Alissa Wilkinson

What does that mean for you? You must have seen a shift in your subjects in that regard over the years.

Steve James

I haven’t filmed with high schoolers for a long while, and not in a high school environment. So I would’ve thought going into this that given everyone has a camera in their pocket, everyone’s posting and maybe oversharing on social media, that there would be more interaction with the camera. I’m fine with that. It’s the world we live in. And those moments when they’re not just being hammy to be hammy, they can be very real.

But I was surprised at how guarded they were about their privacy. For this generation, I get the sense that dating is kind of an outdated concept, and a surprising number of our kids didn’t really have active social lives. But for the ones that did, that was a boundary they put up with us. That was something that they were careful about.

In part two, Tiara gets a boyfriend. We see him briefly, and we hear about him, but I could never get her to let me film with them. And I was talking to her the other day, and she said, “I’m so glad I didn’t let you film me with him, because he is so history.”

I think one thing this generation understands is that things can be permanent. A film like this isn’t just going to come and go — it’s going to live forever. Of course, I love that about the series.

But for them, it makes them think about how they’re portrayed in the series. There’s much more self-awareness about that. Kids who feel like they have future, who are thinking about college and about the long term, they think, “Who’s going to see this? What conclusions are gonna be drawn about me?”

I don’t have a problem with that. I feel that it’s important that your subjects have an agency in this process to be able to draw boundaries. No documentary gets everything. Even if it looks like they did, they didn’t. So I think that’s important: You don’t have a right to know everything about somebody’s life.

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you think they’re willing to share their personal lives on social media because they can control the image, but a documentary like this is more out of their control?

Steve James

Yes, and I think our job as documentary filmmakers is to get to a level of trust where they will allow us in, in ways that they didn’t expect. I think subjects are often surprised at how revealing films are, even when they feel like they have controlled the situation. They don’t understand to what degree their actions and their interactions reveal what’s going on. You don’t have to get everything in order to reveal the truth of their lives.

I have found, over the years, that the more subjects feel in control of this process, the more open and revealing they are, because there’s a level of trust that comes with that. They know, or come to know, that you’re not here to just try to get everything.

That’s one of the reasons we have always shared people’s stories with them at some point in the editing process: to engage in a dialogue about it. I don’t give them editorial control. I’ve had to say no, often — “No, I feel that still needs to be in the film.”

But I’ve often changed things as a result of that process, because it’s like, “I think you’re right,” or “Okay, but what if we say it this way?” I want them to come out the other end of this and not feel like this was a mistake, or feel exploited, or feel no sense of control.

You build that relationship. Each of our filmmakers did that with the subjects, and then they are more open and revealing.

Grant Lee, one of the subjects of America to Me
Grant Lee, one of the subjects of America to Me.
Kartemquin Films/Starz

Alissa Wilkinson

So you are a white guy who often makes films about people who aren’t white guys, and you have been doing it for decades. Has the way people talked to you about that changed over time?

Steve James

It’s always come up. From Hoop Dreams on, I have always gotten those questions, usually at Q&As and sometimes with the press.

But, it used to be more a curiosity: “How did you pull this off?” With The Interrupters in 2011, it was, “How did you manage to be in those situations and not have it not work out because of who you are?”

It used to be more a question of how did you do it? And now, it’s should you be doing it?

I think that’s an important question. It’s always been an important question — but it’s a particularly significant question right now.

And it has changed the way I go forward with the stories I tell. Even on this one — I mean, from a practical standpoint, I could never shoot a miniseries alone. But in the past, I might have thought, “Well it’s my community, I’ve lived here for a long time, I have the right to tell this story.” In some ways, it’s absolutely true.

But there’s no way I should be telling this story now without significant contributions from filmmakers of color who bring what they bring to it. I’m not just talking about finding a black person to work on my crew; I’m talking about finding a really talented black filmmaker like Kevin, or a filmmaker like Bing, who’s young and was often mistaken for a kid in the school. Rebecca brought something so important to the project, too — imagine me telling Chanti’s story [Chanti is a biracial student working out gender identity and race through spoken word]. Forget it. No way.

I also feel a greater responsibility to mentor filmmakers of color or women, if they want that from me. I mean, I’m not trying to push myself on people and say, “I can be your mentor!” But it’s one of the reasons why I got involved [as an executive producer when Bing was making] Minding the Gap.

It’s not like he needed much from me; he’s so talented. But it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to hire him on America to Me: I saw in him this incredibly talented young filmmaker who could be great for my series, but I also wanted to also help him along his career. I’ve done that more recently and more actively. I feel like it’s something I am in a position to do, that I should do, that I need to do.

I don’t believe ultimately that only filmmakers of color should tell stories of people of color or that white filmmakers should only tell white stories. Eventually the conversation about this will change. Filmmakers of color should not be confined to just telling “their” own stories. Filmmakers of color that I know well don’t want to be in that box.

But that is in no way to say that the moment that we find ourselves in isn’t an important moment that we have to grapple with. White filmmakers have to really take stock. We have to look at how we’re engaging with the stories we’re telling.

America To Me premieres August 26 at 9 pm Eastern on Starz. Episodes will also be available via the Starz website and streaming app.

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