A student stops the principal and shows him a text from her mother, who told her to find a place to live. Kids look bored, sleeping on their desks or listening to headphones. A mother reports that her daughter is missing, or maybe abducted. One student fails a test and has to repeat a course; another learns she’s first in her class.
These are moments during the start of an academic year at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School, a South Carolina school that is, its principal tells a student, 99 percent African-American. And they’re part of American High School (National Geographic Channel, Tuesdays at 8), a documentary series that does an exceptional job of showing us fragments of their high school life.
These are their stories. The show is simple, following several students and intercutting scenes from their lives with moments of life in the school. That’s basically it.
Most of the scenes take place in the school, which is located between Charleston and Columbia, S.C., though the cameras occasionally leave school grounds, and all the while the show manages to be intimate without being intrusive.
American High School is an argument, but an implicit one; there are no direct arguments being made here about policy or priorities, or even really about race and class. But those are brought to the surface by these students’ stories: a gay student who wants to go to New York, where he’s convinced a gay man can have a life; a football player who struggles with others’ perception of him; a transfer student who’s also white who’s made fun of and called names.
The cinematography and editing devote a lot of time to atmosphere and place, from lingering shots of motivational signs that are almost comical in their contrast. The opening sequence has a series of illuminating images: shot of a Confederate battle flag, a Trump for president “Make America Great Again” billboard, and a student on a school bus wearing a hat that says, “just a kid from Orangeburg.”
These are just kids. But the first act alone piles on the anxiety and challenges they face, from testing to school shootings. The weight of what they carry is ever-present. Also ever-present is Dr. Stephen Peters, the school’s new principal and somewhat of the main character, which works well for television because he is both an observer and participant.
Altogether, it’s extraordinary television.
Directed and filmed by Marcus Plowright, the six-episode series was produced by Swan Films for BBC Three; National Geographic is airing only four episodes in the U.S. (A&E just pulled its high school show Undercover High, on which adults go undercover at a high school, off the schedule at the last minute; it was supposed to debut tonight and now does not have an airdate.)
How American High School’s production got this kind of access, and who gave consent to be filmed, especially all of the students who aren’t primary subjects, isn’t clear. Yet on screen there is evident care: for the people, and for the presentation. It’s beautiful yet not filmed in a way that glamorizes, nor does it seem like it was filmed from the perspective of outsiders (since it’s a British production) looking in.
In the trailer above, which is from BBC Three’s version, Peters says, “In America, to be young and black is one strike. To be young, black, and uneducated is two strikes. And to be unemployable is your third strike.”
American High School illustrates, with clarity and humanity, how achieving that education piece is not elementary.