Steve James on Observing the Racial Inequities at a Progressive School

Steve James on Observing the Racial Inequities at a Progressive School

What challenges came out of the administration’s resistance?

For the most part they made a genuine effort to give us the access we wanted. But they tried to control that, too. Partway through the year, they tried to say I couldn’t speak to teachers in the school without first clearing it. I’m not talking about on camera — just have a conversation with a teacher. I said, “That’s never been the understanding.” They said, “Oh, no, that’s the understanding.”

There were times like that where I had to threaten to go back to the school board, and they backed down.

You were still able to get a dozen students to participate. How did you pick your subjects?

This was unusual for me, because I’ve never done a film where I’ve cast it. All the films I’ve done, I’ve either met someone or I’ve heard a story, and then I do it.

With this one, it was different. John Condne and I, the teacher producer, we met with about 40 families. I was looking for kids who would span the grade levels, at first. And this was ultimately a shortcoming of mine, because I knew we were going to want to follow some white kids, but I gave primacy to the black and biracial kids, in terms of our casting, initially thinking — erroneously and kind of stupidly, honestly — that it wouldn’t be that hard to find some good white student candidates. Given what this was about, I should’ve known better.

What would a “good white student” candidate look like?

[Chala Holland, a former assistant principal] is the one that really impressed upon me that you can’t just tell this story and focus on black and biracial kids. She was right about that. Initially, that’s all I was going to do — I expected to see white kids and students, of course, but not focus on a kid’s story.

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