“How Do You Possibly Do Justice to All This in a Single Film?”: Steve James on America to Me
Steve James has never shied away from going big. From his 1994 breakthrough, the near-three-hour Hoop Dreams, through long-players like Stevie and The Interrupters, the filmmaker has never been afraid to blow well past documentary’s traditional 90-minute mark. (He’s also played ball, as with 2016’s Oscar-nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, which clocks in at a brisk 88.) Still, even for James, America to Me is ambitious. It’s his second dalliance with TV, after 2004’s The New Americans, spanning 10 hour-long episodes, which begin on Starz on Aug. 26.
But it’s not just size that matters. It’s the scope, and the way it forced James to change up his usual approach. America to Me drops into Chicago’s Oak Park and River Forest High School, located just outside of Chicago and a progressive institution with a diverse student body. James’ own kids are among its alumni, and he found himself drawn to how it tries, and sometimes fails, to do good. For one thing, it’s revealed at the start that African-American students’ grades aren’t improving, despite attempts to expand beyond white-centric teaching.
The show follows a number of students, eventually twelve total, as well as faculty members, some of whom struggle with a stubborn student board, and with the students themselves. The project had so many moving parts that James, who usually shoots most or all of his footage himself, had to hire “segment directors,” including Minding the Gap director Bing Liu, and a team of editors to follow different students and create a more panoramic view of the school. James spoke to us about first conceiving of America to Me as a film, farming out the work and how he doesn’t want to do a miniseries again (for awhile).
Filmmaker: Right now the lines between film and television and streaming are blurring more than ever before. I imagine, for non-fiction filmmakers, the birth of streaming affects how you approach projects and how you try to sell them. When you’re looking for funding for something like America to Me in this day and age, what medium are you saying it will be? Did you initially pitch it as a TV series or something that could be on Netflix, or do you even risk it as a giant stand-alone film?
Steve James: I originally was thinking a film. When I was presenting it to the school board of Oak Park, one of the members said, “What you’re talking about sounds very ambitious. How do you possibly do justice to all this in a single film?” So I told them—because I was trying to get them to say yes, but it was sincere—“I can’t promise you I can get a series, because that’s about funding, finding the right partner. But I agree with you, and I’ll try to get it as a series.” And I figured what I would do was I would pitch it as a series, and if people said, “We’re not interested in a series,” I would say, “Well, how about we do it as a stand-alone?” We did get the MacArthur Foundation to give us some money, which was great. But when I went to Participant [Media], I had a meeting with Diane Weyerman, who is the head of the documentary division there. I got about two or three sentences into my description, and she said, “I want to do this as a show.” Part of that was she had spent some time going to Columbia [University in Chicago]. She knew the city, she knew about Oak Park, and she grasped that what we were trying to do was not a story that has been told frequently—however powerfully—in the past, about poor, underfunded public schools in besieged neighborhoods, where kids are under threat of violence and live in extremely poor situations. This was not going be that story, however great that story is and however many inspiring—as well as despairing—films have been made about that. She got that immediately. They had never done a TV doc series at this point. If Participant hadn’t come onboard, I think there’s a very good chance this never would have been made as a miniseries. Maybe as a film. A much less ambitious film. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: You definitely would have had to flatten out some of the nuance and complexities that really define the show.
James: And I wanted to follow more than three or four kids. I would have had to find a different way to tell the story. Knowing me, I would have tried to make a three hour film. But even that wouldn’t have been the same as what we’ve done.
Filmmaker: The industry seems to have changed for long documentaries. Now those can be essentially miniseries, on streaming platforms, rather than giant films that eat up huge chunks of a movie theater’s day.
James: One of the things that’s changed is we’re living in the age of television. It wasn’t that long ago that we were living in the age of film. We are not living in that age anymore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some great films still being made, of course there are. But at the center of the cultural conversation in this country is TV. It’s funny, because people have been lamenting for years that people have short attention spans. Well, I don’t know—they sure enjoy bingeing for hours at a time on a really good TV show. I think it all started with scripted. Scripted got really good, and it opened up all these possibilities for more nuanced storytelling, as well as the pleasure of extended viewing. Most of my all-time favorite narrative films are long films. That may speak to why I’ve made long documentaries. I love the immersiveness of a long film, and when it’s really good I don’t really want it to end. That’s what television gives you, on a much larger scale. To me, one of the greatest documentaries ever made is The Staircase [from 2004]. That was way ahead of its time. But along came all these long documentaries. As it turns out, they’re all about murder. The Staircase is about murder. O.J.: Made in America is about murder. The Jinx is about murder. Making a Murderer is about murder. One of my fears with this was not only are we not in an incredibly dramatic, desperate situation, but there’s no murder either. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: There’s no big cliffhangers at the end of each America to Me episode, just life happening over a school year.
James: A lot of these docu-series have a real story to tell, of a murderer and who did it and who didn’t do it and whatever. We didn’t have that. That can be scary at times. There’s nothing like a great narrative story to carry you along, but it’s also liberating to not be a slave to the narrative. We have a bunch of mini-narratives, and we’re just trying to keep you interested in each of the kids through the series while adding new kids and new stories. It can be madness, but it can also be exhilarating because you’re not restricted. I felt the same way when I made The Interrupters. The Interrupters is structurally simpler than this, because it’s a single film and you’re only following three people. But it had the same sort of liberating editing choices. Outside of the seasons, which were part of the story, it’s kind of like we can do whatever we want, as long as we’re not misrepresenting what’s happening.
Filmmaker: You had three segment directors—Kevin Shaw, Bing Liu and Rebecca Parrish—and you had a team of editors: Rubin Daniels, Jr., Alanna Schmelter, Leslie Simmer and David E. Simpson. How did you break down the duties and how did you all work together to shape these into episodes, which are very different beasts than, say, acts in a classical three-act story structure?
James: The segment directors took certain stories and followed them through, and the editors took certain stories and edited them as a first pass. Leslie would do Grant’s [a shy kid] story, for example, and David would do Kendale’s [a wrestler and marching band member] story. After they had done that, we had to think about what’s going to be in each episode. Then we collected kids as we went along. We started with seven, we ended up with twelve. How do you introduce the kids as we go along? I also wanted there to be some kind of major anchor scene in each episode, whether it was a football game or homecoming or a basketball game. That was the only guideline. Everything was like, “Okay, what’s in the rest of the episode?”
Filmmaker: You can experiment with narrative and how you even tell a story.
James: Yeah! We talked a lot about that with this series: How do we pull you through the series? At the end of each episode, do we feel that’s been a satisfying hour in and of itself yet it doesn’t leave you at the end thinking, “I feel like I kind of got this. I don’t really need to keep watching”? How do we engage you enough in the kids’ lives so you say, “No, I’m definitely going to keep watching. I need to find out if Kendale gets that weight off and actually gets to wrestle,” or “I’m worried about how Terrence is doing in his English class”? These are the things we have to plot out in terms of our storytelling that aren’t traditional cliffhangers or whodunits or whatever.
Filmmaker: It can almost make more sense, from a financial viewpoint, for more ambitious documentaries to go the TV/streaming route.
James: I think about this kind of size because, apart from obviously the advantages of storytelling and expansiveness and depth and nuance, it’s also an economic model that can make sense for a documentary. There’s been great success this year for theatrical documentaries, like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG and Three Identical Strangers. You have three films that have already catapulted into the top grossing documentaries of all time. That’s really encouraging. But there’s a lot of people who fund documentaries and broadcasters who are being very careful about what they spend their money on, because of a feeling that those films are not money-making opportunities. Documentary storytelling is cheap to produce per hour, in a sense. [America to Me] wasn’t like making five or six stand-alone documentaries, even though it’s 10 ½ hours long. It’s an economy scale that can work because the broadcaster gets more bang for their buck.
Filmmaker: It also sounds exhausting. This is the most ambitious project you’ve ever done, which is saying something. Do you see yourself doing another anytime soon?
James: No. Having done this now, my next project is not going to be a miniseries, that’s for sure, because these are hard. I have never made anything that was harder to make than this. It was three-and-a-half years of intensive filmmaking. I had tons of amazing help on this. We wrestled down the 1400 hours to the 10 ½ that it is. This was a monster. It was very different for me. I’m not a filmmaker who farms out everything. I’m very much in the trenches. I shot probably 400 hours myself. I’m an editor on it. I wear multiple hats, because that’s how I make all my films. We did a miniseries back in 2004 called The New Americans. It was seven hours long. Hardly anyone saw it, because it was not the right time, I guess. After that, I was like, “I’m not going to do this again.” It took me some years before I changed my mind, and now I’m back to that.
Filmmaker: One of the major ideas running through the film is the struggle white liberals face when they try to confront race or solve racial issues. There are some well-meaning teachers in this film who, in trying to do good, make some problems worse. How do you, as a white man making a film about race, rectify that, make sure you’re not falling into some of the same traps?
James: One of the promises I made to the school board is this would be made by a diverse team of filmmakers. There are the segment directors: Kevin Shaw, who is African-American; Bing Liu, who’s the maker of Minding the Gap, which may be the best documentary of the year, in my humble opinion; and Rebecca Parrish, a very talented white female filmmaker. All of them are younger than me, some much younger than me. We had diversity on the producing team, and in the editing room. It was truly a collaborative undertaking in every respect. That was really the only way to tell this story, and to tell it with the depth and the candor that we could. I’ve done a lot of films where it’s been me and some other white filmmakers telling black stories. I don’t know if I could do The Interrupters again, certainly not the way we did it, even though I’m very proud of the film. There’s some really legitimate questions being more forcefully asked than before about who gets to tell whose stories. I feel an obligation to take that seriously. Because I live in the community, because of my track record, because of my ability to raise money for something as open-ended as this, in some ways my white privilege helped get this made. That to me is a good use of my white privilege, especially given the make-up of the team and the stories we’re trying to tell.
Filmmaker: And you’re not inserting yourself into the film, apart from stray bits of voiceover that are purely expository. You let people onscreen speak for themselves.
James: We use the voices of the subjects. When our filmmakers are asking them questions, it’s their questions, not my questions. They’re the ones engaging with the subjects, not me. My approach has always been to tell these stories through the voices and experiences of the subject, not me imposing myself upon them. Still, you are the one editing it, you’re putting it together. Ultimately it’s what you believe.