Varied Gaze on ‘America’

To film a series on a racially integrated high school, Academy Award-NOMINATED documentarian Steve James turned to an inclusive team of segment directors who would relate to the students.

By Addie Morfoot

When Steve James started work on the documentary series “America to Me” three and a half years ago, he knew he’d have to recruit a team of filmmakers to direct alongside him.

He pledged to recruit directors who were not just talented but diverse.

“Diversity was important because we were going to mostly be following kids of color,” explains James. “We would also be following young high school girls, so it was vitally important that we have at least one woman filmmaker. I also wanted filmmakers that could bring a younger sensibility to the project and more easily connect with the kids.”

Starz acquired the 10-part docuseries at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

“America to Me” examines racial, economic and class issues at Chicago’s Oak Park and River Forest High School. James, who was 60 as shooting started, hired Bing Liu, Rebecca Parrish and Kevin Shaw — 26, 32 and 42 years old at the time, respectively — as series segment directors. The four filmmakers each followed three students over the course of one academic year.

Liu, an Asian American who directed the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Minding the Gap” while working on the series, feels that being in his late 20s during filming helped his subjects relate to him.

“It also helped not being white,” says Liu. “In this school, it felt like a very black-and-white conversation, which parallels the American conversation around race. I think I played this really observational role outside of that conversation, but I was very cognizant of what both sides were feeling.”

Shaw was in charge of filming three black students.

“As an African American filmmaker, I felt like I was able connect with [those three] students in ways that Steve or another director who wasn’t African American wouldn’t be able to,” explains Shaw. “I totally understood where they were coming from when they were talking about certain issues that plagued them, like microaggressions or flat-out racism and discrimination in school, because I experienced that as an adolescent, too.”

James, helmer of “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” is no stranger to directing films about the African American experience, so he knew that making this series would take more than a white man and a camera. He says that while publicizing his earlier films, he was often asked questions like, “How do you manage to ingratiate yourself into these communities as a white filmmaker?’ ”

Now he realizes it was the wrong question.

“It was not, ‘

Should

you be ingratiating yourself into these communities?’ ” James recalls. “That issue is much more front and center now, and it’s changed the way I think about the teams that I work with in telling those stories. And so ‘America to Me’ was the perfect opportunity to put together an incredibly diverse team of filmmakers.”