WASHINGTON — The AFI Docs Film Festival annually honors a documentary master by inviting the filmmaker to a fascinating panel discussion at the Guggenheim Symposium.
It’s hard to imagine someone more deserving than Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “Life Itself”), who received the honor Thursday night at the National Museum of American History, following in the footsteps of past guests Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Laura Poitras.
“I know some of these filmmakers well, so it’s great to be in their company,” James told WTOP.
Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, James admits he never set out to become a filmmaker.
“The seed was not planted when I was a kid, that’s for sure,” James said. “I didn’t watch any documentaries. I was into basketball and not much else. I was a forward but we had kind of a small team, so I was about as big as we got. … Actually, a small power forward.”
He discovered his love for film as a junior at James Madison University.
“I took an English course, an appreciation for film, and I just fell hook, line and sinker,” James said. “The course was centered around great auteurs, so we started out with Ernst Lubitsch … Then we moved on to Jean Renoir … Alfred Hitchcock, Arthur Penn. … I had always liked movies, but that course really sealed the deal. I thought, ‘Gee, it would be fun to do something like this.'”
In graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, James expanded his love to documentaries, including Barbara Kopple’s Oscar winner “Harlan County, USA” (1976).
“I saw ‘Harlan County’ when I was in grad school. I also saw Michael Apted’s ‘Up’ series. At that point — this is how long ago that was — it was ’28 Up.’ I think he’s going to be doing ’63 Up’ soon. … Both of those films had a real impact on me, Barbara’s work because of the immersion into a culture in conflict, and the ‘7 Up’ series struck me with this idea of literally watching someone grow up. That was influential ultimately when I came to do ‘Hoop Dreams.'”
“Hoop Dreams” (1994) started out as a short film that expanded into 250 hours of footage shot over five years, following aspiring Chicago hoopsters William Gates and Arthur Agee.
“We found Arthur through this street scout, Big Earl, who was showing us playgrounds,” James said. “He discovered Arthur and started to recruit him to this powerhouse school, St. Joe’s, so we just decided to follow along and that led us to William Gates, who was going to school there … That happens a lot in documentary. You start out with one idea and organically it changes.”
The film won the Audience Award at Sundance and earned an editing nomination at the Oscars, despite being overlooked for Best Documentary, which enraged film critic Roger Ebert.
“Frankly, in some ways the best thing that happened to ‘Hoop Dreams’ was for it to be snubbed,” James said. “It created such a firestorm in some quarters that it encouraged a lot of people to seek it out. They were like, ‘What’s all this hubbub about this documentary?'”
After the success of “Hoop Dreams,” James pivoted into a pair of narrative sports flicks with “Prefontaine” (1997), starring Jared Leto as long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine, and “Passing Glory” (1999), starring Ruby Dee, about an all-black high school basketball team.
James returned to documentaries with “Stevie” (2002), following his reunion with at-risk youth Stevie Fielding, to whom James had been a “Big Brother” 10 years earlier.
“I was encouraged to do that by my wife, who was working at the time in southern Illinois with at-risk youth,” James said. “She said, ‘I think you’d be good doing this.’ I thought I’d get one of her kids that used to hang around the house. … Instead, they gave me the hardest kid they had in the program. … I was his Big Brother for nearly three years, then we moved to Chicago, then 10 years after that, after ‘Hoop Dreams,’ I decided to go back and see what became of Stevie.”
Three years later, James directed a lighter documentary with “Reel Paradise” (2005), following film buff John Pierson’s quest to screen American movies on the island of Fiji.
“He had moved his family to Fiji to run the world’s most remote movie theater,” James said. “He asked me if I’d be interested in coming and documenting it and I was like, ‘Yes, I would love to do that.’ So we went and filmed the family’s last month in Fiji and the 10-movie marathon he was doing as a grand spectacular finish. … Watching the audiences in Fiji watch ‘Jackass’ was a sight to behold. I have never seen an audience so engaged with a movie in my life.”
He returned to more serious subject matter with “At the Death House Door” (2008), investigating the wrongful death of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed at a Texas prison in 1989.
“It originated with an investigative piece by two Chicago Tribune journalists, who were looking into the Carlos DeLuna execution, which had happened seven years earlier,” James said. “They had this suspicion that he was actually innocent. … They approached us and said, ‘We think this would be a good film,’ but in the process of telling me about Carlos, they told me about Rev. Pickett, who believed he was innocent and had been with Carlos in the last day of his life.”
He returned to hoops for ESPN’s “30 for 30: No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” (2010).
“Back in high school, he was involved in a racial bowling alley brawl that became a huge deal,” James said. “Allen lived in my hometown of Hampton (as) I was finishing ‘Hoop Dreams’ and I remember thinking, ‘I should be home filming this.’ … When this opportunity came years later, I pitched it to the ESPN guys and said, ‘I’d love to go back and look at what happened.”
The following year, James directed “The Interrupters” (2011) about a year on Chicago’s streets.
“We filmed in the streets for over a year and I remember saying to my colleagues, ‘It feels like we’re living inside an episode of ‘The Wire,'” James said. “This group Ceasefire would have what they called ‘violence interrupters’ who would go out and mediate violence in the streets and try to tamp it down. … I was disturbed about the level of violence in Chicago (and) wanted to know about people who were really trying to do something on a ground-level way.”
He returned to sports with the ahead-of-its-time concussion doc “Head Games” (2012), following the head injuries of both a football player and pro wrestler Chris Nowinski.
“I didn’t realize that Chris Nowinski was the guy that really put this whole issue on the map,” James said. “I thought it would be really great to tell his story and dive into this really difficult issue. … You meet parents of young athletes who are dealing with this and you see how hard it is for parents who have kids who love these sports and they want to support that passion. At the same time, they’re worried to death about what could happen to them.”
His next project was arguably his best, the Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself” (2014).
“He passed away during the making of the movie,” James said. “He wrote a memoir, which I knew about but hadn’t read. Someone who thought it might make a good film said, ‘You should read this,’ so I did and I just fell in love with the book. … He was this critic who loved movies and was invested in the moviegoing experience (and) yet he lived this really full life around it. That’s why we came up with the tagline: ‘What Roger loved more than the movies was life itself.'”
Most recently, he earned an Oscar nomination for “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” (2016) about a mom-and-pop bank that was the only criminal indictment in the 2008 mortgage crisis.
“None of the big banks faced any criminal prosecution. They were fined but they were deemed ‘too big to fail,'” James said. “The one bank prosecuted by the D.A. of New York … was Abacus Federal Savings & Loan, a community bank started by Chinese-American immigrants.”
What’s next? Check out his Starz docuseries “America to Me” (2018) about progressive public schools in Chicago’s Oak Park suburb, where James’ children go to school.
“I thought it would be great to go in and look at race and education in a place like Oak Park, where you think everything would be figured out — and it’s not,” James sad. “That’s the crux of what film tries to examine: how a liberal, diverse, well-funded public school system is somehow still managing to fail black students. … People for years have been begging me to do a 10-hour film. I’ve finally done it. It’s a 10-hour miniseries that’s going to air on Starz in the fall.”
Until then, let’s take this weekend to soak in James’ prolific career amid AFI Docs, which reminds us that film dreams are possible no matter how many hoops you have to jump through.
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Steve James (Full Interview)