Starz Doc ‘America To Me’: Even in a Good Place, We’re Still Figuring Race Things Out

America To Me, an unsentimental examination of race relations at a high school on the outskirts of Chicago, reminds us that having all the pieces on the board doesn’t mean you’ve solved the puzzle.

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Tiara Oliphant at OPRF High School.

A 10-part series that premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Starz, America To Me in one sense confirms that today’s teenagers are wrestling with several of the same racial issues as their parents, grandparents and great-great-great grandparents.

How does a country whose mission statement declares “all men are created equal” reconcile a long-embedded tradition of too often acting as if precisely the opposite were true?

Can a scale that far askew ever truly be balanced? If so, how?

America To Me, whose title is drawn from Langston Hughes and also evokes “The House I Live In,” leaves debate on those broader matters to sociologists and historians. Instead it talks with students, teachers and parents at Oak Park River Forest High School and lets the viewer decide how hopeful to feel.

On paper, Oak Park River Forest should be a national model for integration and diversity.

The school is 55% white, 27% black and 9% Latino. It draws many of its students from Oak Park, a community that defied the white flight movement of the 1960s and instead accepted housing integration.

Because a lot of white folks stayed in Oak Park, the community and its public high school are places where people of all colors live, work and study together.

Or, America To Me asks, do they?

The filmmakers talk primarily with black students — because, they say, white students were reluctant to go on camera talking about race.

The interviewees reflect a wide range of demeanors and different levels of hope, wariness and determination. What they all agree on is this: Black students have a different experience at OPRF than white students.

America To Me doesn’t assemble a panel of experts to debate the nuances of student placement or teacher attitudes. It’s more anecdotal, taking snapshots of individual student experiences and seeking observations from teachers who are trying hard not to let preconceived notions affect the way they treat their students.

Ke’Shawn, a junior, seems to be bright and unmotivated. He fails a test and says he doesn’t care. He says there’s no point, because he knows where the game ends for black students, so why bother to play it?

Are these just excuses? Is he using a legitimate problem to rationalize indifference? There are unmotivated white students, too. Is he as much kin to them as to frustrated black students?

Students Charles and Tiara have different attitudes and a common goal: They’d love to make a career in music. As a teacher, do you nurture that dream? If you point out that there are more secure career paths, does that crush or bruise the dream? Would you say the same thing to a white student?

Terrence, Tiara’s cousin, hovers on the line between “regular” classes and special ed. Would special ed serve him better or would it be another cases of taking the easy path and dumping the black kid there?

America To Me doesn’t confront us with anything as crude as, say, white-only drinking fountains. Instead, in this show as in American life, a thousand little things — a word here, a reminder there — make it clear color-blindness is a work in program even among well-intentioned people at a demographically progressive institution.

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Kendale McCoy and friends.

America To Me inevitably raises the tense, unavoidable question of whether, in the larger historical context, America is moving in the right direction. Over the last 60 or 70 years, the span of the modern Civil Rights movement, have we made things better?

There are some, not a focus of this documentary, who say no. They say our failure to have reached that promised land despite decades of effort means the effort has been misguided.

Others say these are long roads and we don’t know how many we must walk down before we arrive.

The primary value of America To Me may lie in its simple focus. It aspires only to document one time and place, letting the implications fall where they will.

It’s not a slick, breezy production. It requires paying attention, tying together many small bits of information and sometimes putting up with the frustrating things all teenagers will say.

But in the end, it confirms this truth: Our chance of solving the puzzle is zero if all the pieces aren’t on the board.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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