Steve James and Charles Donalson III meet a reporter in the airy welcome center of Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Sauntering through hallways that will soon become familiar to viewers of “America To Me,” the 10-part documentary series, debuting at 9 p.m. Sunday on the Starz network, we end up in the lunchroom, where the Academy Award-nominated director squeezes into the bench-style seating.
Donalson, 19, who graduated last year, is among 12 OPRF students James and a film crew followed for a year.
The film, which focused on one of the nation’s most elite and diverse public schools, has sparked conversations on racial inequity in academic achievement — gaps that persist even within communities of privilege and opportunity.
“Black kids tended to sit over here, on this edge of the cafeteria, or along the back row; white kids in the middle sections. Not all, of course, but pockets,” says James. He filmed on the school’s four-square-block campus during the 2015-2016 school year — Donalson’s junior year.
“It’s funny, I didn’t make that connection when we were filming, because I would have gotten some kind of wider shot to show that black kids were on the margin, so to speak,” says James, a lifelong Oak Parker. His three children also went to OPRF; the last graduated in 2010.
Donalson, who is African American, mimics a news announcer’s voice.
“Black kids are on the margins everywhere. It doesn’t stop at this school,” says Donalson, who just finished his freshman year at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and has moved from Oak Park.
“They don’t give them a break, not even in the lunchroom. It’s a physical representation of the gap, in case you don’t believe us,” he says. “That gap is not only in academics, but in a very social way. Depending on who you talk to and what demographic, it feels like two different high schools.”
Initially, 40 students were interviewed; of the 12 picked, seven are African-American; three are biracial; and two are white.
James, Emmy-winning director of such films as “Hoop Dreams,” “The Interrupters” and “Life Itself,” had long pondered the racial gap in academic achievement plaguing the high school, which has been named among the top 500 nationwide by U.S. News and World Report.
Its inequities have long been a source of community debate within River Forest and Oak Park, immediately west of Chicago. Its 3,370 students are 54 percent white, 23 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic, 9 percent multiracial and 3 percent Asian.
“We have this incredibly diverse, extremely liberal community and very well-funded public school system. Yet, for decades, the community and school have struggled with the inequities in achievement between white and black students,” says James.
Oak Park-River Forest — the only school in District 200 — spends $14,944 per student on classroom instruction. A fifth of its students are low-income. By comparison, Chicago Public Schools, with 83 percent low-income students, spends $10,427 per student.
“There have been a lot of films and books over the years focusing on poor, mostly minority schools like CPS, where the district is underfunded, there’s often extreme poverty, and oftentimes, unfortunately, quite a bit of violence. Oak Park is not that kind of place, yet it struggles around issues of race and achievement in similar ways. How could that be?” asks James.
To find out, his crew followed the students, offering portraits of entire families — beautifully layered, complex and diverse — as they grapple with teen challenges of self-identity and self-esteem, choices and consequences, family and peer pressure, reality checks and acceptance, giving up or persisting, confronting stereotypes, even racial profiling, in their own hometown.
Insights are shared as the teens navigate racially skewed academic levels — from transitional to college prep, honors and Advanced Placement courses — and involvement in extracurricular activities.
“It’s trying to see the school from our perspective. Watching it, I had to laugh. I saw some things differently than I did at the time, which I attribute to being older,” says Donalson, who lived with his devoted single mother and had a troubled relationship with his father.
“When we think about what it means to grow up black, black kids do not get to be kids for long. So I think my favorite thing about the documentary is that it shows us just being kids, goofy at times, but just kids,” he says.
A racially diverse cadre of segment directors — Bing Liu, Kevin Shaw and Rebecca Parrish — joined James, following three students each.
Teen perspective is interspersed with gripping viewpoints from parents, teachers and administrators, resulting in a candid conversation about the nation’s failures in educational equity. Donalson and his peers will hold you rapt for the next 10 Sundays. The last episode of the Participant Media and Kartemquin Films production airs Oct. 28.
“It shows that just because a neighborhood isn’t necessarily one where you see blatant racism, it’s still going on,” says Donalson. “Down South, for example, they’ll tell you outright, ‘We don’t like you.’ Here, there’s a lot of disguised racism. They do not prioritize black students’ success.”