Behind the scenes of ‘America to Me’

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Segment director Kevin Shaw shares lessons from the new 10-part documentary series about life inside an integrated high school.

By Kristen Doerer

What really goes on inside an integrated high school? A new 10-part series airing Sunday nights on Starz explores how race, class, and cultures intersect at Oak Park River Forest, a suburban high school bordering Chicago’s West Side.

On the outside, the school is an integration champion’s ideal. The student body is 55 percent white, 27 percent black, 9 percent Latino, 6 percent biracial, and 3 percent Asian. The school’s principal is African-American. The school leadership says it is committed to equity.

But stark disparities persist, and the racial achievement gap has barely budged in 12 years. “Every activity, every assembly, everything is made for white kids, because this school was made for white kids, because this country was made for white kids,” says student Charles Donalson III in the opening episode.

Filmmaker Kevin Shaw, perhaps best known for his documentary “The Street Stops Here,” played a major role in the production, following three of the 12 students featured in the series through an entire school year. Shaw was part of a filmmaking team that consisted of series director and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Steve James, known best as director of the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams,” as well as filmmakers Rebecca Parrish (“Radical Grace”) and Bing Liu (“Minding the Gap”).

When James approached him about the project, Shaw jumped at the chance. But he was new to the topic of education. And, having had something of an idealized high school experience at an integrated college prep school on Chicago’s South Side, Shaw was in for some surprises.

I spoke with Shaw about how the team of filmmakers went about building trust with skeptical families, how they addressed concerns that series would be depicted through a “lens of whiteness,” and how making a documentary about a high school was in some ways more challenging than other documentaries he’d worked on.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.  

Trailer for the 10-part documentary series America To Me 

Kristen Doerer: Which students did you focus on, and how were they divided among the different directors?

Kevin Shaw: Once the school board had given the green light to go forward with the project, Steve and one of our series producers John Condne recorded interviews with about 40 families who were interested in participating in the project. We whittled down that 40 to seven students and their families. Each one of us watched all their tape and broke down their stories, and Steve let us pick who we were interested in filming. I selected Kendale McCoy, who was the wrestler and band member, and Ke’Shawn Kumsa, whose mom Danielle had been expelled from the school. We picked up some white students toward the end of the first semester, and each filmmaker picked up another student to follow, so by second semester, we all had three students to cover. I ended up picking Gabe Townsell who was one of Kendale’s wrestling teammates and was a high achieving African-American student.

KD: Why did you decide to add the new character, Gabe, and other families along the way?

KS: I remember pushing to include a high-achieving African-American student, especially one who was male. A lot of times when we’re doing these media stories, it’s always the African-American male who’s not achieving well, who’s doing poorly, etc. We wanted to follow Gabe in the beginning, but his family didn’t want us to be involved at first. Once they realized that we were going to be very critical of the school — fair but critical — and they saw how we were interacting with Kendale and his family, that trust started to build.  Every family was probably cautious to some extent in the very beginning. I think because they understood our seriousness and our pledge to really get their stories right, slowly the trust builds, and over the course of time — at least in my case — a lot of these families are now part of my extended family. We’re very close. And we are taking this ride together of what’s going on with the series now.

kevin shaw re danielle

Filmmaker Kevin Shaw

KD: As a filmmaker, what are you trying to do once you’re in the room with the kids and the camera is turned on? What are you thinking about, worrying about, trying to do or not do?

KS: Mostly, when you’re looking to capture the emotion of a scene, you look to a person’s face. If it’s Kendale for instance in English class, and I know today he’s going to read one of his writings to the class, I’m thinking about the intimacy of the moment. I want to make sure I get good angles of him reading, but more importantly, I want to capture the reactions of his classmates and teacher to his writing. So I’m looking for good moments of people listening. And then, when Kendale receives feedback, I want to make sure I get a bit of the classmate giving his or her feedback before launching on a cutaway of Kendale’s reaction to what’s being said, because how he receives their comments is equally telling. Filming those reactions to me are the secret sauce to documenting a great scene.

KD: Is there anything different about shooting a documentary about a school than other kinds of stories you’ve told? Anything harder or easier?

KS: When you’re doing most documentaries, you have the full support of whoever you’re following, that access has been granted and you agree upon it, and everything is fine and dandy.  But in this case, the teachers and the administration were probably the biggest roadblock. We really had to work and find out which teachers were receptive to the work we were doing and which ones weren’t. When we were trying to get into a student’s classroom, we basically had to have a conversation with that teacher and do — for a lack of a better term — our sale of what this whole project was. In my case, less than 50 percent of the teachers who taught my students wanted me to be in their classrooms filming.

Less than 50 percent of the teachers who taught my students wanted me to be in their classrooms filming.

KD: How did you get past the idea some people had that the series was going to be shown through this white lens, given that the lead filmmaker is a white man?

KS: By recruiting a multicultural team of filmmakers. I’m African-American. Bing Liu was another director, he’s Asian-American, and Rebecca Parrish is a female filmmaker. So you have three different points of view there that you’re bringing into the filmmaking conversation, and we’re following these people on our own. We’re cultivating relationships, we’re figuring out what we should film and what we shouldn’t film, and we’re reporting back to Steve saying this is what we’re getting. Steve gave us every opportunity to have our filmmaking voice. He wanted it; he needed it. It was the only way that it was going to be successful. There’s no doubt that we as filmmakers are all over this series. Whether Steve is seen as the headliner, that’s fine, but our voices are definitely in the stories that we did. And that’s how you combat that lens of whiteness, because the filmmaking voices are coming from a diverse, multicultural point-of-view as well. And then, to make sure that nothing got lost in editing, we wrote, for a lack of a better term, a diary over the course of the year that described each day that we shot with our subjects. From these diaries, the editors would be able to put themselves back into that day’s filming. So when they watched the footage, they understood emotionally where we were, what was going on during that particular moment.

KD: What do you think other education reporters would do well to learn from your experience in covering a story like this?

KS: I think you have to have an open mind and listen, observe, and definitely try to get both sides of a story and try to understand where the disconnect is. I think if you do that and put yourself into the shoes of those people, you’ll be able to get that 10,000-foot view that will allow you to create a portrait with a fair and objective but emotional and intimate perspective. I certainly approached the series and recording and documenting these families from an outsider point of view. I’m really sitting there just learning, observing, watching, trying to understand where everyone is coming from. I also had to be patient in working with my families, because trust is not easily gained. It was a two-way street. As much as I asked of them, I had to be as vulnerable. That way, a relationship based on honesty, where people can be completely candid with one another, is slowly established.

I remember pushing to include a high-achieving African-American student, especially one who was male.

KD: What lessons did you learn about storytelling in schools?

KS: Education is not an easy beat to cover. It’s very complicated. The adages of hard work equal student achievement just don’t apply. I think that is the barrier education reporters have to overcome when reporting stories in the field. In order to affect the minds of readers and viewers, reporters and filmmakers must approach these stories with great care and empathy. Readers or viewers can be stuck in their preconceptions based on their own experiences and not realize that everyone doesn’t share the same experience. Try to place one’s self in the shoes of those going through the experience so that it’s truly relatable. Only then can stereotypes be broken.

KD: Are there any stories that education reporters are not telling that they could be?

KS: We need more stories on how race, class, and culture intersect in our educational system and how that contributes to the achievement or lack thereof of certain segments of students. This is happening everywhere in our country. It’s not just Oak Park, Illinois. It’s happening everywhere — East Coast, West Coast, and the central part of our country.

By recruiting a multicultural team of filmmakers… that’s how you combat that lens of whiteness.

KD: What you would say to those calling for more integration and those who don’t think it’s key to closing racial achievement gaps?

KS: I don’t think integration is the key to solving everything. Just because we throw everybody in the same building doesn’t mean everybody is going to achieve on the same level – especially when you’re not looking at it from an equity viewpoint, where the needs of students are going to be different across the board. Just because you’re putting everybody in the same school and giving them the same opportunity doesn’t make everything equal and equitable. And if you’re not committed to addressing those different needs, if you are not committed to trying to find more African-American teachers to help with African-American student population, if you’re not committed to building authentic relationships between a teacher and students that aren’t based on stereotypes, then throwing a diverse community of students together in a building is not going to solve the achievement gaps that we’re having right now. Integration is good, but we need to make sure that the equity portion is put forth first and foremost

Kristen Doerer is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Previously, she has profiled ProPublica’s Hannah Dreier, described the importance of mentors in education journalism, examined the fellowship model, and identified the most memorable education stories of all time. You can follow her at @k2doe.


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