Starz has sought to stand out in the pay cable world in part by offering programs that appeal to under-served audiences, including “Power,” premium TV’s most popular series among African-Americans. Now the network is seeking to build on that foundation with two unscripted series, exploring separate but complementary aspects of life among black youth.
“America to Me,” premiering this weekend, is the more ambitious and sweeping of the two. Produced by Steve James, whose credits include the memorable 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams,” the 10-part series focuses on a year in the life of Oak Park and River Forest High School, chronicling events through children of varied backgrounds, but most notably through the lens of how the educational system too often fails African-American teens.
The other project, “Warriors of Liberty City,” comes to the network in September courtesy of NBA superstar LeBron James, as well as hip-hop pioneer Luther Campbell. In ways, the six-episode series is a modern-day companion to “Hoop Dreams,” only here focusing on youth football in a depressed section of Miami, a city that has placed more players into the NFL than any other in the U.S.
Both shows deal not just with kids, but also adults that pass through their orbit – in the case of “America to Me” (a title derived from a Langston Hughes poem), parents, teachers and administrators, who speak openly about the failure to address racial disparities within the educational system.
“We’re preparing our black students less well,” one school employee states near the outset.
James – who sent his own kids to Oak Park, a Chicago suburb – had to win approval in order to film there, but the patience and access paid off in a series that offers a richer, more nuanced look at what it’s like to be a black kid than daily news headlines – especially those out of Chicago – generally allow.
“Liberty City” possesses some of the same virtues, although it’s a little too enamored with the will-they-win-the-game dynamic baked into the premise, as well as the familiar theme of organized sports providing an escape for the lucky few who win that golden ticket, while – on a more basic level – bringing structure and discipline into the children’s lives. (Some Miami products, including NFL star Chad Johnson and “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, appear to tout those merits.)
The one aspect that doesn’t receive enough discussion within the show, given the abundant football sequences, are concerns about brain injuries in regard to full-contact football involving young children. For anyone who has read up on that topic, it’s difficult to watch the hard hits on pre-teens and not wonder about the long-term consequences that the near-religious devotion to football might exact.
Largely spared from that distraction, “America to Me” features a winning mix of kids, running the gamut of emotions and experiences that high school entails. At the same time, it filters its universal qualities through the specific prism of a school where, for all the good intentions, black students face obstacles – subtle, and sometimes not so subtle – above what their white counterparts do.
When the show was previewed at the Sundance Film Festival, Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips predicted that it “will end up doing a lot of good for a lot of people,” which might be overly optimistic. The problem with today’s stratified, echo-chamber-oriented viewing environment is that many of those who might have their eyes opened by these projects are probably the least likely to see them.
Still, “America to Me” is the kind of endeavor that one hopes people will find. It’s the one to watch – although when “Warriors of Liberty City” joins it on Sunday nights, Starz will have a tandem that conveys a more understated kind of power.
“America to Me” and “Warriors of Liberty City” premiere Aug. 26 at 10 p.m. and Sept. 16 at 8 p.m., respectively, on Starz.