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NEW YORK (CNS) -- "America to Me," an exceptionally thoughtful and challenging miniseries from acclaimed documentarian Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"), premieres on cable's Starz premium channel Sunday, Aug. 26, 10-11 p.m. EDT.
The 10-part series will continue to air on Sundays through Oct. 28, with the next two episodes in the same timeslot and subsequent installments slotted for 9-10 p.m. EDT.
James takes his film's title from a line in the poem "Let America Be America Again" by the great African-American writer Langston Hughes. In this 1936 work, the narrator -- speaking on behalf of all disenfranchised Americans -- muses: "America never was America to me."
This apt and resonant phrase wonderfully evokes the attitude of the black students profiled in the series, which explores racial inequity in the U.S. public education system by focusing on high schools in Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois.
Oak Park, a Chicago suburb of 52,000 residents adjacent to the city's West Side, is notable as the hometown of both author Ernest Hemingway and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The demographics of the more than 3,200 students who attend its high school reflect, in James' view, the attitudes of the town's "younger whites," who, being "more liberal, wanted to be part of an American experiment in diversity."
By the 2015-16 school year, the result was a student population that was 55 percent white, 27 percent African-American, 9 percent Latino, 6 percent biracial and three percent Asian. An Oak Park native, whose children went to the school he's examining, James is uniquely well-qualified to report the challenges it faces.
While "America to Me" is not narrated, per se, the director does occasionally add some exposition. One of his salient remarks underscores the documentary's critical insight: "The people at Oak Park learned," he says, that "diversity is not the same as equity."
The school board's director of assessment and research, Amy Hill, reflecting on the persistence of the "same disparities we saw in 2003," tells the board's instructional committee that, at this rate, "it would take 75 years before the black students caught up."
Concerned, of course, with the big picture, James nonetheless focuses on personal and intimate stories to illustrate his larger theme. The diversity of voices -- viewers not only hear from students and their parents or guardians, but from teachers, administrators, school board members and security guards -- enriches the film.
African-American senior Kendale McCoy's experiences provide a good example. Raised by his grandparents Tab and Patricia Washington, McCoy divides his time between being a drum major in the school marching band and wrestling -- consistently struggling to make weight.
Through his gift for creative writing, McCoy explores the harsh realities that threaten his tenuous hold on success. In one essay, he describes the trauma his little brother endured when their mom's boyfriend was shot in front of him.
James is also the master of the small, quiet, revelatory moment. Thus, in one scene, the sweet, shy and vulnerable Terrence Moore, a developmentally delayed African-American junior, is shown by one of his teachers how to make a bracelet for his mom, Telicia. The pride, joy and pleasure he displays when he gives her this gift is heartbreakingly touching.
Beyond its examination of racism, "America to Me" also touches on such mature themes as gang violence, poverty and teenage pregnancy. The program also deals, in passing, with gender identity and sexual orientation.
Additionally, participants employ strong, incidental vulgarities -- which, it can be assumed, reflects the way they normally speak. Taken together, these elements indicate that "America to Me" is most suitable for adults, though some parents may feel that its edifying content makes the show acceptable for mature teens as well.
As it showcases awkward, difficult conversations about race, "America to Me" compels viewers to grapple with their own attitudes toward this perennially troublesome topic. Though it takes a commendably unflinching approach, the program is also filled with uncommonly graceful and poetic moments. Neither its insights nor lyric interludes ought to be missed.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.