Crossing Over to the Silver Screen
SLAM talks with Steve James, director of “Hoop Dreams” and the new Allen Iverson film.
More than 15 years ago, award-winning director Steve James brought us Hoop Dreams, one of the greatest documentaries–check that, one of the greatest basketball films–of all-time. Early last year, when we heard that the Virginia native was directing a new docu on Allen Iverson, we had a feeling the resulting product was going to be dope. Twelve or so calendar pages later we can now tell you, he didn’t disappoint. To read Jeff Min’s review of No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, be sure to pick up a copy of SLAM 137. To scope No Crossover, the highly anticipated hoops themed 30 For 30 episode, be sure to tune in to ESPN on April 13 when it premieres. For now, before you’ve had a chance to read the review, before you’ve had a chance to see the movie, let this in-depth, super-long Q and A with Steve James tell you his thoughts on Virginia, race, Allen Iverson, violence and basketball.
by Jeff Min
Allen Iverson photos: Courtesy of Daily Press; Steve James photo: Jerry S. Altares
SLAM: Could you tell me about how this film came about, ESPN approached you about this project correct?
Steve James: What they did is they approached me about the series [30 for 30]. They were going to do this ambitious series where they wanted to get thirty independent filmmakers to do thirty films covering some event in the last thirty years in sports—they’re coming up on thirty years so they wanted to celebrate thirty years of ESPN. What they were interested in were stories that were not the usual suspects. They had done things like sports century and some of these other series of “greatest athletes” and things like that, so they had kind of done a lot of profiles of famous athletes over the years. They really wanted stories that they felt like hadn’t really been told and part of the idea was that the stories be something that the individual filmmakers had a real personal connection or passion for. That was the important thing. They really wanted these to be sort of individualistic kinds of films.
I first thought about Dr. J as a Squire because I grew up in Hampton. The Virginia Squires [of the ABA], when they came to town, grabbed Julies Erving when I was a kid. I got to see Julius Erving play his first years as a professional, which was quite memorable. My first thought was ‘oh Dr. J’, but it didn’t work because it was too early. Then I just said here’s an idea that I wanted to do a film about since it happened fifteen years ago. So I told them my take on the whole Allen Iverson thing and what happened in my hometown and the way in which I felt connected to it being from there, and my parent’s role in my understanding of what happened. They really liked it and they told me later that had it not been for the personal approach they might not have gone for it because they initially felt like ‘well this is a story that we certainly covered when it happened’. But when they first saw the rough cut of the film they acknowledged that they really didn’t know hardly anything on what really happened. That was what was exciting for them about the film, and of course the personal take on it.
SLAM: Was it difficult for you to be both the director and an active participant?
SJ: Well, I always am a reluctant subject in some ways. My instincts are to not be too much of a subject, and I tried not to let that happen here. I had done this one other film called Stevie in which I was in the film, and that was a very different kind of situation. That was my first experience dealing with that so I had a little bit of experience grappling with that, but one of the things that I wanted to be sure about is that the reason for me to be in the film was to…through me you could get a bit more of a window, in a more personal way, into the community and the history and the feel of the community. And I think that was the primary role in it, but then as we went along making the film there were other things that came up that they were important to include like when the cameraman, Keith Walker, asked if I ever wished I was black. It sort of came out of the blue and I wasn’t expecting it. It made me laugh in a way, but then it also made me think about it. And when I asked him back in the film when I said ‘did you ever wish you were white’—my answer [to his question] was I don’t know that I ever really wished I was black, I just wished I could play basketball like the stars I admired—but when I asked him back if he ever wished he was white he immediately said ‘absolutely’. So moments like that or later on when Keith asked if I ever confronted anyone for using the ‘N’ word, those were all moments that just sort of happened. They weren’t planned, they weren’t calculated in any way they just felt like they were important moments to have in the film.
Same with Joyce Hobson, when I had her explain why she had been reluctant to do the interview I thought that was a really strong statement that she made, and it was important to have that in the film. So yeah it’s always a little tricky when you’re the subject and when you’re the director, but I think in this film it wasn’t as a tricky as in this other film I did because I really tried to keep those moments and my involvement smaller and really make it more personal with the anecdotes I tell in the voiceovers or when interviewing my mom.
SLAM: Since you were the viewer’s guide into the Hampton community, did at any point in the film you feel pressure or an overwhelming sense of guilt for introducing Hampton in such a way?
SJ: That’s a good question. Yeah, I did feel some responsibility. Of course this film it can’t give you the full breadth of either the history or the place today and so it becomes a selective…or one person’s point of view ultimately on what this community is. With that in mind I tried to represent, through the voices of people who were in the film and what I say about the film, the range of characteristics and history that encompassed the place. In other words I didn’t just want to point out that it’s where slaves first disembarked, which was a discovery I made during the film, but also point out that it’s where some six thousand slaves found asylum during the civil war. That’s certainly part of their history that for which the community in the area should be justifiably proud. In some ways it’s that complicated sense of the community that was really interesting to me because it wasn’t a community where I had seen a lot of racial violence or even tension. As Butch Harper says at one point in the film this wasn’t a place where you saw the KKK and things like that. People in general have tended to get along, but there were those underlying tensions and underlying history. I think it kind of came to the forefront during this incident. So those were some things I discovered in making the film because my prime motivation was…I had a hard time understanding why my hometown had erupted like this over a star athlete. It struck me as kind of out of character for the place as I knew it growing up, and so making the film opened my eyes to the history, the broader community and the underlying tensions that came to bear.
I think one of the things that make it an interesting story as well is that we look at Allen Iverson now having been a college and professional athlete and a star, who may be at the end of his career at this point. We kind of know his persona now over the years so to go back and look at what really was the beginning of the Allen Iverson persona and how that happened is, I think, really interesting. It’s one of the more interesting aspects of revisiting this story years later instead of just telling it in the moment.
SLAM: Did you find it difficult filming this story in retrospect as opposed to in the moment?
SJ: When this was originally happening I would have loved to have gone back and documented it as it unfolded. In fact I thought about it at the time, but was just not in the position to do it. I was finishing Hoop Dreams, I didn’t have any money to kind of leave my wife and three children on months on end [laughs], and just go there on a whim and start documenting it, but had I been in the position to do that I would have absolutely told the story in a different way. Back then it would have followed this unfolding story and sort of attempted to thrust you fully into what’s happening at the moment and all the emotions that were running high, and of course I would have loved to have made that film, but I wasn’t able to and didn’t. So going back now it does make it a different film, and it’s one of the reasons why I think it’s a personal film. I think if I had done it then I would have left myself entirely out of the story. I would have utilized my having been from there and obviously familiar with the city to my advantage in terms of getting access to situations, but I doubt I would have in any way thought to make it more personal in the way that this film is. So it’s always different given that I am more of cinema vérité kind of documentary filmmaker.
There was a fairly significant treasure trove of archival media at our disposal as well. The way the news covered the story in the papers and we were able to get footage from some different sources that have not been seen. I think the film still attempts to put you back at that time, but you’re looking at it with the advantage of time having passed, which encourages a different kind of approach as a filmmaker and also as a viewer. You’re watching a story that happened seventeen years ago and you’re thinking about it in terms of where we are today. We have an African American president and we like to think we’ve made tremendous progress, but I hope that one of the things you do when you watch this film is that you think about could this happen today, and where are we in terms of racial progress.