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America to Me
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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that America to Me is a documentary series that deals frankly with issues of race. Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and his assistants follow a handful of students and faculty members at a progressive high school in suburban Chicago to see what role race plays in their education and everyday lives. Though the show frequently discusses ideas about institutional racism and education, it also shows regular teen life events as simple and compelling as high school dances, football games, and poetry slams. It deals with complex issues but does so in a very accessible way, making its impact through observation rather than argument.
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What's the story?
Is it any good?
Many documentaries feel -- and, in fact, are -- scripted, as directors have an idea of what they want the film or show's story to be and then find and shoot footage to fit their predetermined narrative. America to Me, on the other hand, feels more like a pure documentary -- like Steve James set out to simply observe a year in the life of Oak Park High, without knowing what stories might come or if there would be any answers to the complex questions about race and institutional racism he intended to raise. The result is a deceptively simple mosaic of life in Oak Park, which slowly blossoms into something incredibly poignant. Embedded within the relatively mundane events of the school year are frequent revelatory moments: a parent describing getting expelled for missing a day to have surgery, for example, or watching the mostly black cheerleading squad practice their routines before learning that they're only allowed to perform in front of a section of the bleachers where the other black students hang out. In this way, being a simple observer allows James to illuminate institutional and everyday racism in a way that a script never could.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the high school shown on America to Me. How does it compare to the schools you've been to? Do the students or teachers remind you of anyone you know?
How does the racial diversity in Oak Park affect these students' and teachers' lives? What does it mean to be a "progressive" school? Does anything surprise you about the school or the people there?
What are some other issues besides race that come up for students, teachers, or parents in Oak Park? How are they dealt with?
Do you think that the cameras have an effect on how the students and teachers behave? If so, how? Do you think this is a "realistic" depiction of high school?
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