In cozy Oak Park, black students face a swirl of emotions

Oak Park, Ill., is a gorgeous place. I've gone there to admire the Frank Lloyd Wright creations; I'll return to see some of the Hemingway roots. But even in this good-natured town, known for segregation and diversity, black teens can feel ill-at-ease. Now a well-made  documentary series focuses on them. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Charles Donalson
figured he was an odd choice for a big-deal documentary.

“They should have
never put that camera on me,” he said with a grin. “I didn't take
it seriously.”

But it was serious
stuff: Steve James, a two-time Oscar-nominee, was starting “America
to Me,” a year-long project that followed black and biracial
students in Oak Park, Ill.

Some of the teens
found that imposing. “I felt like, because the camera was there,
other students would act differently,” Jada Buford said. “But
after a while, it just became natural.”

Donalson took a
different approach: “I went around the school telling people that
the cameras were really for the show 'Cheaters' ... and that they
weren't doing a good job of (secretly) following me.”

And in a way, he was
perfect for this. Beyond his light-hearted surface, Donalson brings
strong views.

“The people in
power don't ... want to give us the privileges they have,” he said.
“They don't even wanna give us books .... I've been in the
college-prep classes, I've been in the honors classes and I stopped
seeing people who looked like me in the honors classes.”

And that's in a town
that prides itself in fair play racially.

A Chicago suburb of
52,000, Oak Park is now ordinary town. Ernest Hemingway grew up there
... Frank Lloyd Wright moved there, creating gorgeous houses near his
own ... Others have ranged from Bob Newhart to the founders of Sears
and McDonald's.

Percy Julian, a
chemistry pioneer, moved there in 1950. His was the first black
family in Oak Park, greeted by firebombing ... and then by a
community segregation effort. Now blacks make up 22 per cent of the
city. “It's a diverse community,” said James, who is white. “It's
a very liberal community.”

He lives in Oak Park
and his top documentaries – “Hoop Dreams” (basketball) and
“Life Itself” (Roger Ebert) – were made nearby. His kids went
to school there; “it's a well-funded public high school.”

So James was
surprised when a racial controversy began, after the school scheduled
an assembly only for black students. He decided to have crews follow
some students for an entire year.

Donalson, now 19,
had a breezy approach. “I take it very lightly in the documentary,
but that's because I had a whole bunch of white people following me.
When I was 16, that was the most fun thing.”

What people will
also see, he said, are the sacrifices. Parents struggle to live in an
expensive suburb; for he and his mother, that often meant a
one-bedroom apartment. “My mom worked two full-time jobs, for us to
stay in Oak Park.”

That led to
extraordinary opportunities. Not every school has a spoken-word
teacher, guiding poets and rappers. “I wouldn't have been the poet
I am” without the help of Peter Kahn, Donalson said.

But most of the kids
from his old Chicago neighborhood will never have that, he said.
“Those are my friends (who) aren't allowed the same privileges as
me, just because their parents couldn't afford to live in this
neighborhood .... Go put a camera on them.”

That's a good idea,
James said – but not what this series is about. “I've done those
kinds of stories and those stories are very important and compelling,
(but) we wanted to try to look at a different part of what it means
to be black and biracial in America.”

That includes
Donalson, still scrambling. He received a scholarship to Wiley
College, a historically black school in Texas, known for its debate
teams in the past (depicted in “The Great Debaters,” Denzel
Washington's 2008 film) and present (2014 national champions).
Currently, however, he's taking a break from school; he's working
part-time and preparing a short (six or seven-song) album.

And he's observing
the world around him. Donalson was talking with the Television
Critics Association at the Beverly Hilton, home of the Golden Globes
and a golden lifestyle.

“Do you all know
how much food there is out there?” he asked. “When I was in here
yesterday, I'm watching all the money it probably takes to just set
up this room .... We're hoarding wealth, and that's the same thing
that Oak Park is doing.”

-- “America to
Me,” debuts 10 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 26), Starz

-- Reruns include 7
p.m. Monday, 10 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3:56 and 11:27 p.m.