Twice a year, television critics, including the TV Guide staff, group together in luxury hotel ballrooms to preview the season's upcoming new shows and debate the state of television with network executives. TV critics are an important resource to promote shows in the age of peak TV and with so many shows on the air, networks want as many reporters as possible to say great things about their show, so they make reporters from outlets around the country happy with unlimited soft drinks and catered food as they pound on their laptops.
None of that impressed recent high school graduate Charles Donalson III, who attended the Television Critics Association summer press tour at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills Saturday to help promote the Starz docuseries America to Me. In it, he's one of 12 students followed through a year at the elite Chicago suburb Oak Park and River Forest High School in an series that confronts racism and the educational disparity even middle class students in affluent neighborhoods face.
Donalson has had to fight for every opportunity he's been afforded in his 18 years of life and didn't mince words when pointing out how even TV critics attempting to be sympathetic don't even recognize their own privilege.
"Jesus Christ, do you know how much food they give out there? You all are laughing, but I'm dead serious right now," Donalson said to the room of journalists . "I was in here yesterday watching all the people it takes just to set up this room. Literally situations like this where you are hoarding wealth — that's the same thing that Oak Park is doing. That's the same thing in this country. It's because white people are selfish. It's because the people in power don't want to give us they money they have. They don't want to give us the privilege they have. S--t, they don't even want to give us books."
There are many moments when TCA panelists get more honest than their publicists would like — Tom Arnold did it on Thursday! — but very rarely does a panelist have the guts to point the finger back at those sitting in the room. To be honest, Donalson wasn't wrong. Half the food not eaten by the journalists and guests at TCA is thrown away because it's a liability issue to donate it to shelters. Donalson's blunt and truthful takedown of the situation right in front of his eyes was a necessary and eye-opening pop in the bubble of opulence TV critics reside in at press tour, TV premieres and the like.
"[The documentary] shows how hard it was for black kids once they're in Oak Park, but it doesn't really show how hard it is for black kids to get to Oak Park," Donalson said. "If you don't live in that suburb they will kick you out. If they have reason to believe you don't live there, they will follow you home...I think that was a bad influence. It was hard going to a school where no one wants me there."
To Donalson's credit, he's not looking for anyone to understand his plight — he's looking for the solution so that he and people like him don't have to have a plight anymore.
"Go out there and help someone that looks like me. Y'all can give us any type of light, any type of story, any type of shine, but until you start helping us and until you start putting us in positions where we don't need the spotlight. For you to actually say you care, act like you care," Donalson said. "Don't write about the show, write about the problems that the show is dealing with, the struggles that made the show possible."
America to Me premieres Aug. 26 on Starz.