The director of the new Starz series ‘America to Me’ talks about being empathetic, using his whiteness for good and the one incredible scene he chose not to film
Documentary filmmakers have their trademarks. Errol Morris wields his Interrotron to deliver direct, intimate portraits of his subjects. Frederick Wiseman eschews genre conventions — no talking-head interviews, no voiceover — so he can quietly observe the institutions he’s chronicling. Michael Moore makes himself the star of his films. By comparison, the characteristics of a Steve James project may not be as pronounced, but they’re just as indelible — and they’re all over America to Me, his remarkable new series that premieres on Starz on August 26.
Divided into 10 hour-long episodes, America to Me spends a year embedded in Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF), a suburban Chicago-area school with a healthy mix of white and African-American students. James’ children had gone to OPRF, so his interest was piqued when the school received national attention in 2015 for holding a Black Lives Matter assembly that only allowed black students to attend — white parents were upset their children were excluded. The controversy highlighted racial tensions, not just in Chicago but across America, and it made James curious about developing a series that dove deep into the complicated ecosystem of students, teachers, administrators and parents that comprise a multicultural high school.
Starz only released the first five episodes of America to Me to journalists, but the series quickly establishes itself as an absorbing, kaleidoscopic odyssey. And it has several elements that distinguish it as a James work. For one, there’s an incredible amount of empathy for everyone we see on screen — whether it’s the petulant teen or the harried reading tutor, America to Me doesn’t look for villains or punching bags, just nuanced human beings. The series is ruled by its compassion and genuine inquisitiveness — perhaps best articulated in James’ warm, unobtrusive narration that occasionally steps in to explain the context of what we’re watching. That voice has often been our guide in James’ films: Most of us first became aware of its rich tenor from James’ 1994 landmark Hoop Dreams — which, in its depiction of two Chicago teens trying to make the NBA, is the most obvious precedent for the milieu he explores in America to Me.
Race, class, education and community — the bedrock issues roiling America — have been James’ purview ever since Hoop Dreams, often inspiring him to bring his cameras into the homes of people of color and trying, as a white man, to honor their stories. (His Oscar-nominated 2017 documentary Abacus: Small Enough to Jail concerned a Chinese immigrant family in New York that ran a small bank that was unfairly accused of mortgage fraud.) Curiosity and humility are James’ touchstones, and during my conversation with him, he’s candid about the responsibility he feels about getting those stories right.
Over the course of our discussion, we also discussed fighting against white-savior tropes, what the national media gets wrong about Chicago and whether his films’ tendency to focus on the development of young men is a coincidence. He also shared the one scene he decided not to film. “You don’t necessarily have a right to everything about everyone’s story,” he says.
Watching America to Me, I was struck again by just how empathetic your films are. Do you consider yourself an empathetic person? And where do you think that came from?
I certainly had parents who were very empathic. My dad especially was someone who was a kind of pillar in our community. He was always known as a good man who wanted to do the right thing — he was active in our hometown socially in that way. I’m sure there’s some roots in that.
But I think a lot of that empathy came from my upbringing, in terms of just growing up in a community in Hampton, Virginia, that was largely black and white. I had an interest in basketball, and my dad’s business was located in what was often called a “dicey” part of town — meaning, a black part of town. So early on, I had encounters around issues of race and the experiences of black people that maybe were unusual for a white kid growing up where I did. That turned my head in terms of thinking about what it means for people who are different from me — what their lives mean to them, and what’s different about their lives versus my life. That’s probably where some of the grounding and empathy came from. That fascination and real interest in grappling with race pervades a lot of my work.
Also, I’m married to a counselor who works with a difficult population of people who most people have no empathy for — she works with sex offenders. That’s a group of people who most of us would [prefer] not spend any time with — and certainly have little sympathy as well as empathy for. I found a partner in life that I think exudes [empathy] in a very profound way.
I think I was kind of a lonely kid growing up. I wasn’t really popular in high school — even though I was on the basketball team, somehow I managed to not be popular. [laughs] If you’ve grown up in situations where you feel like you didn’t have everything you thought everybody else had, that can also ultimately make you empathetic toward other people who are struggling in different ways than I did. I didn’t struggle economically, and I didn’t struggle racially because I’m white. But I think it can build bridges in some ways in trying to understand what life is like for other people.
Your films immerse viewers in these different communities, but we also get a sense that your subjects feel safe opening up to you.
I’ve had good fortune in that regard. I do think, though, one thing that’s important to underscore with [America to Me] is that there are other directors on this project that we’re calling segment directors because that’s what was approved by the Directors Guild. Kevin Shaw, Rebecca Parrish and Bing Liu were my real creative collaborators in the shooting part of this. Because of the size and scope of this project, we each divided and conquered in terms of following [different] kids. I filmed other things besides kids — I filmed school board meetings, dealt with the administration and some of the teachers’ stories — but whenever I could, I filmed with the kids if they needed help. So this one’s a very creative collaborative undertaking, and each of those segment directors did the very thing you’re talking about: They built relationships with the kid they were following that encouraged them to feel safe and feel able to be themselves.
It may sound like a nice turn of phrase, but I really do believe it: When I’m making a documentary, I’m making it with the subjects, not on the subjects. It’s a collaborative undertaking — they have real agency, in a sense, in the story that we’re telling. I make it through them — through their experience, through their words, not ours, and not through a lot of manipulative editing to make them appear to be something they’re not.
It’s also kind of striking a balance where there are aspects of their lives that they feel are off-limits. Even though I may push to try to get more access in places where I can’t, I ultimately will very much respect that and understand that. I think that’s something that they feel that also contributes to them feeling more comfortable — they feel like they can trust us as filmmakers because we’re not just training the cameras on them.
We loved, in this particular project, the way in which the kids would interact with us as filmmakers and interact with the camera. That’s all part of the story and part of who they are and part of this generation, too. All those things are key. I’ve often found that, when people feel that they have more control over the process, they’re more open and honest with you because they feel like this isn’t going to be a “gotcha” situation.
Do you ever worry that your subjects feel like they have to be on their best behavior because it’s you? “We’re in a Steve James movie — he’s a famous documentary filmmaker. We’d better put our best foot forward.” How do you fight through that “performance” element?
Every documentary filmmaker encounters that, to some degree. Early on, subjects do more performing because they feel like you picked them because they’re really interesting, and so, they have to live up to whatever expectations they think that you have of them. A big part of that early part of the process is getting people to relax and just realize that it’ll be a lot easier — and actually a lot more fun — if you just be yourself and don’t worry about living up to billing. I’ve encountered that a lot over the years.
With the kids, in the early part of this series, some of that manifested itself in playing to the camera. But we included a fair amount of that simply because it was revealing and funny and entertaining. When people perform, it also reveals them. It’s not their everyday selves — it’s their performing selves. And all of us engage in performance at different times and in different situations. [laughs]
In a big-picture sense, there was no way this film would have happened had I not been a long-term resident of Oak Park and had the track record that I had as a filmmaker. The school board allowed us in over the objections of the principal and the superintendent, and that was a highly unusual decision for them to go against their own administration. They trusted that I wasn’t coming in to do an exposé — it would be candid and honest, but it would be fair. I certainly tried to live up to that.
But sometimes the Hoop Dreams [connection] backfires in schools, frankly. People who have seen the film feel like the portrayal of schools — particularly St. Joseph’s — isn’t flattering. Schools will sometimes be like, “Yeah, you did Hoop Dreams? That’s exactly why I don’t want you to come into our school.” [laughs] I’ve run into that over the years. I’ve had to be careful.
[With America to Me], it was tricky at times because the teachers could decide whether they wanted to participate or not. We couldn’t force our way into a classroom just because [my subjects] had that class — the teacher had to be agreeable. A lot of teachers decided that they didn’t want us in their classroom — I would say that over half the teachers over the course of the year basically refused us access. That’s unfortunate in some ways, a blessing in others, because if we could have been in all those classrooms, it might have been a 20-hour miniseries. It turned out long enough.
Whether it’s Hoop Dreams, Stevie, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson or America to Me, you’ve often focused on the development of young men. Is that coincidence? Or are you drawn to that subject?
That’s an interesting way to look at it. You’re right in one sense, which is that the films I’ve done have focused on young men in various situations. But one of the things that’s different about the kids in this series versus Hoop Dreams, Allen Iverson or Stevie is that these are kids of color — mostly black and/or biracial — who are growing up not in poverty and not in a besieged neighborhood wracked by violence. These are kids who are growing up in more stable home environments, even though they have their share of struggles. One of the reasons I wanted to do this series wasn’t just to look at issues of education and race in Oak Park, but also to look at the lives of mostly black kids and biracial kids who are growing up in an environment that’s much more like the environment that most white kids in America grow up in.
I’ve been a filmmaker who is focused on the fringes of society, economically and otherwise. This was a chance to try and portray and follow the lives of more middle-class black kids. I don’t think there’s nearly enough attention paid to their lives and the struggles that they face. The assumption is, once you don’t live in a poor neighborhood if you’re black, then you’re fine — there’s nothing to worry about.
One of the things that’s interesting about my work, though, that has struck me over the years, is how many strong female subjects have emerged in all those films: the mothers in Hoop Dreams; Brenda, Stevie’s sister; in The Interrupters, Ameena Matthews. And we have some incredibly strong, young female students who are a big part of this series as well.
It’s funny you say that: When I watched Hoop Dreams again a couple years ago, I was surprised by how much of the mothers’ stories I’d forgotten. It’s almost like the men are often the leads in your films, but it’s the women who emerge from the shadows to surprise us.
In The Interrupters, we followed the only female interrupter in the program — there were a bunch of men. Ameena Matthews ends up being the star of that movie in many ways — here is a black and Muslim-faith woman working in this very dangerous occupation and being terrific at it. In this new series, there’s Jada, who’s incredible and interesting and has a powerful presence. And Jackie Moore, the most outspoken school board member. I just found over the years that, like the world we live in, there are many charismatic and strong women who are making a difference in the lives of people and in the lives of so many young men.
In America to Me, one of the teachers, a white man named Aaron Podolner, tries to relate to his black students in ways that, sometimes, can be really embarrassing. You don’t vilify him but, as someone who would like to consider myself an enlightened liberal, that guy scares me: “Oh, god, is that the way I come across in the world?” As a white liberal, is there any part of you that has a “but for the grace of God, go I” anxiety about being like him?
With Aaron Podolner, it was important to be true to all of who he is in the way that we portray him. One of the things Aaron said to me when he first was willing to get involved in the series was, “I’m very outspoken on these issues of race, which is one of the reasons I wanted to get in the series.” To have a white teacher who was very outspoken was, I thought, vitally important. He’s an award-winning teacher — he’d won a Golden Apple Award, which here in Illinois is a pretty prestigious reward.
When this aspect of him and his relationship to Jada in the classroom emerged, one of the things he’d said to me in the beginning was, “It’s really important that you talk to my students about what they think of me as a teacher.” I said, “Absolutely, we will do that.” You see that he struggles with Jada, but he has found a rapport with Charles [another of Podolner’s students] that allows him to get along with Charles and be more successful in relating to Charles than he does with Jada. Seeing both those things was vitally important. It would have been unfair to only show the way he related to Charles or to Jada.
I do think that many of us white liberal types can be Aaron, both through the good intentions and sometimes the false steps that we might make in trying too hard to relate — trying to be someone that we’re not, simply because we think that that would help us to relate with black students better. Some of those tactics or approaches can work with some kids. You know, knowledge of rap music impresses Charles, but there are other things about the way he behaves or the way he chooses to engage with Jada that don’t work for her.
I’ve never tried to “talk black” or impress people I’m filming with my knowledge of their culture. I’m always saying, “I don’t know who that is.” I feel like mostly what people want is you to be authentically who you are and not try so hard to be something that you’re not.
Fiction films are filled with white-savior tropes. Your films have always been the exact opposite of that — they have humility and curiosity about the communities they explore. Still, when you made Hoop Dreams, did you ever think, “Is this my story to tell?”
When I started Hoop Dreams, even back then I thought about that issue, although it wasn’t nearly as prominent as it is today. I actually think about it a lot more now than I ever have. I’d come out of grad school, where I’d studied filmmaking and film theory, and what was rampant at that time was all sorts of Marxist, feminist, structuralist critiques of film. Through that lens, I’d have had no business trying to do Hoop Dreams. I obviously rejected that notion and went ahead and we made the film.
One of the things that I recognized, even back then, is that the only way to tell that story, given who I and my partners on that were — Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, who are white guys as well — was if we really did an immersive filmmaking experience in the lives of the kids and the families. We did everything in our power to walk into that situation assuming that we don’t know much at all. That was easy back then, because I didn’t know much at all. The way in which I connected to Arthur [Agee] and William [Gates] was basketball — I knew basketball. I’d had the basketball dream in my own sort of white-bread way that couldn’t compare to what it was for them. I could relate, I felt like, on that level — that was the way in.
The experience of filming Hoop Dreams was so eye-opening in every other respect. I went into it thinking of the main people that we were following as symbols of things — symbols of the strong black mom, symbols of the aspiring basketball dreamer. When you look at people as symbols, then you strip them of their complexity and their humanity. I think making Hoop Dreams taught me that lesson, which I have then tried to apply in every film I’ve made since. When I made Stevie, I didn’t know that world either — we’re both white, but I probably felt more comfortable, in some ways, around Arthur and William’s families because of some shared passions than I did in Stevie’s world, which I had no real connection to at all. I had to grapple with that and get to a place where it felt like I really understood that community.
I’ve tried to do my very best to approach every situation like that: As much as I may think I know, chances are I know nothing, or I don’t know nearly enough. It’s also why I’ve tried to tell the stories of these people’s lives — people different from myself — through their eyes, their experiences, through their words [rather] than to put myself front and center. The only times I’ve really included myself is when I felt like it added something to the story. In Stevie, it felt important that I do that. Even in the Iverson film, I felt like there was real added value because I was from that place and could speak to that in some ways.
I wouldn’t have even attempted to do [America to Me] without bringing in a diverse team of filmmakers, which is what I did, to have primary creative roles and producing roles and even editing. I wouldn’t have tried to do this story by myself — not just because of the sheer scope and ambition, but because I feel like it’s the only way to tell this story, and to tell it honestly and truthfully.
I think more and more about these questions of identity and who gets to tell what stories going forward. It’s shaping how I choose what to tell and the vantage point from which I tell [stories]. It’s also shaping who I make part of the team telling the stories. I’m trying my best now to mentor younger filmmakers of color or women filmmakers, people who have been more marginalized in filmmaking. I’m trying to play more of a role in that regard, because I feel like that’s a way that I can use the privilege of my career and position and whiteness to actually be doing good things.
America to Me, like other films of yours, takes place in Chicago. Nationally, Chicago is often thought of — and is portrayed in movies — as this hellish landscape of crime and violence. You live in Chicago: What do you think of that portrayal?
Obviously, there’s too much violence here, and there’s too many people dying at the hands of gun violence and being shot and wounded. I mean, there’s thousands of shootings each year — fortunately, the majority of them don’t result in death, but too many of them do. Obviously, Chicago’s got a problem, but the problem runs deeply into more fundamental questions of economics and race and who we care about and who we don’t care about. People are more than just victims or perpetrators of violence in those neighborhoods — even the people who have engaged in criminal behavior, there’s more to them.
One of the reasons why I wanted to do The Interrupters goes right into that very thing you’re talking about: I wanted to try to understand what it felt like to live in a community that was wracked with violence and what I assumed would be a lot of despair. And there certainly was a lot of despair. But I found plenty of inspiration — in the lives of the interrupters that we followed, but also in the lives of some of the people that they helped along the way.
It’s reductionist, and it’s a reduction to a kind of stereotype — which clearly has some grounding in truth, as all stereotypes do — but it’s reductionist to dehumanize the people who live in those communities. That runs counter to what I’m trying to do. The trick is to be candid and clear and honest about what Chicago faces, but at the same time understand that that isn’t all of what Chicago is — it isn’t a full portrait of who they are and what their lives are like. There are so many wonderful, law-abiding people in these neighborhoods who are doing their best every day to live their lives with dignity and to prosper and to have good jobs. That’s the overwhelming majority of people who live in the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. They’re not the people that get the headlines.
In Life Itself, you looked at the end of a life. It’s incredibly candid about illness and dying, which most movies aren’t. Partly it was the circumstance you found yourself in with Roger Ebert, but how easy was it to delve into death?
Life Itself is a perfect example for me of why you do documentaries. You go into a documentary with hopefully a good, strong idea about what the film is going to be about — you have ideas and hopes and aspirations about what you’re going to capture. But the real beauty of making documentaries is that, whatever your best-laid plan is, you react to what is happening in front of you and tell that story.
I had every intention going into Life Itself to follow Roger around in his present life and use that as the springboard to do a life story. I expected to see some of his travails and struggles with illness. But when we started the project, we didn’t know or couldn’t have presumed that we were going to be filming the end of his life. The only way that could really happen as candidly as it did was because Roger understood and believed that it was important that people see that. He got it — that the film needed to be as candid and honest about the end of his life and the struggles that he’d been through. That doesn’t surprise me because Roger was so courageous: When he was disfigured by all those surgeries, he went public and put his face out there for people to see. He didn’t just stop living his life publicly. He seized that as an opportunity to inspire people about overcoming adversity. And he did just that.
Still, there were certain things that neither he and especially [Ebert’s wife] Chaz would want us to film. Chaz didn’t want us to be at his bed when he passed away. I totally understood that, of course — I didn’t push for that. There are things that even the most candid and honest documentary don’t need to show you. You don’t necessarily have a right to everything about everyone’s story.
She did call me right after he passed — he was at a rehab institute here in Chicago at the time he passed away. They had him on his bed, and they had moved him down to a chapel area at the rehab institute. She invited me to come down. I kept my camera with me. I just grabbed it because maybe it’ll be okay. I brought the camera into the room. Chaz was there with family and close friends. They were all just sort of grappling with the fact that he had just passed. At one point, Chaz grabbed his hand and held it. She just said, “It’s so warm still. I can’t believe how warm his hands are.”
There was something just incredibly beautiful and poetic about that moment. It was this devoted wife, who was also black and had a very different life from Roger’s, which was one of the things that inspired me greatly about that story. Just her black hand holding his extremely pale white hand, because he had died, just struck me as a powerful, symbolic image of love.
Honestly, I would have loved to have had that shot for the film. But I didn’t even budge to take the camera out of the camera bag. It didn’t feel right. As much as I would have loved to have it, it didn’t feel like I could, in that moment, do that to them, do that to her.
I don’t have any regrets about that. I have the memory of it, which is good enough for me. I think, because you don’t film everything, you try to find ways to get at that very thing in other ways than through a shot.