The July 1936 issue of Esquire magazine included a poem by Langston Hughes titled “Let America be America Again.” A meaty treatise on how the most treasured principles of the American dream are forever out of reach to certain citizens on the basis of race, economic background, and other characteristics that are supposed to be made level by democracy, the poem begins:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
That parenthetical sentiment mirrors the story documentarian Steve James found when he received access — reluctantly, guardedly — to film for an entire academic year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, located in the Chicago suburbs. The title America to Me sits on the resulting nonfiction series like a beacon that keeps the attention focused where it should be. There are wins and setbacks, hope and cynicism existing shoulder to shoulder in a way that is familiar, the expected structured of a narrative. The titled continually reemphasizes the daunting distance that must be traveled to escape the heavy shadow of systemic burdens. For students with identities outside the longtime preferred and continually refortified national power structure — white, male, heterosexual, cisgendered, moneyed — the challenge is only more difficult.
James and his collaborators — including fellow directors Kevin Shaw, Bing Liu, and Rebecca Parrish — spent the 2015-2016 school year following students, teachers, and administrators as they navigate a myriad of challenges, some driven by dwindling fiscal resources and the school board’s aversion to innovation. As James did with astounding expertise some twenty years earlier in the film Hoop Dreams, he approaches his subjects with empathy and commitment to getting as close as possible to portraying the fullness of their lives. That intentionality calls for a thoroughness that sometimes requires showing people in their weaker moments, those of pettiness, selfishness, counterproductive cynicism, and self-defeating laziness. Because the film is equally resolute in finding the humanity of everyone the lens is pointed at, the depiction of those foibles only adds weight to the moments or grace or incremental accomplishment. A Christmas card given sheepishly, accompanied by a ego-salving white lie, hits with the emotion of the most stirring speech because of the meticulous work done in the series leading up to that point.
The longform nature of the project aligns with what is arguably James’s primary skill as a documentarian: a keen ability to shape a real story without resorting to manipulation or distortion. His filmic attentive finds the arcs of these lives — and of this place, this community — and what is there is poignant enough without dramatic contrivances. Those stories unfold with a patience that adds to their dignity, beauty, and sometimes heartbreak.
America to Me addresses a wide range of social ills: race-based divisions, governmental retreat from supporting vital institutions, sexism, bigotry and willful ignorance directed at the LGBTQ+ community, and on and on. My thoughts often circle back to individual episodes as I watch fraught debates play across the news. More than any amount of erudite, studied commentary, James’s documentary series provides a pointed truthfulness about how we give now and maybe how we could strive for a better version of ourselves, our time, our nation. The penultimate stanza of Hughes’s “Let America be America Again” resounds with exactly that brand of determination:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One
—Braindead, Season One
—Community, Season Two
—Agent Carter, Season Two
—The Leftovers, Season Three
—Treme, Season One
—How I Met Your Mother, Season Two
—Firefly, Season One
—Raising Hope, Season Three
—Jessica Jones, Season One
—WKRP in Cincinnati, Season One
—Veep, Season Five
—Freaks and Geeks, Season One
—Legion, Season One
—Superstore, Season Three