Crossing Over to the Silver Screen
SLAM talks with Steve James, director of “Hoop Dreams” and the new Allen Iverson film.
SLAM: There’s also a big advantage in that you get to see how after all these years people are still deeply entrenched in these issues. The people you interview speak very passionately about it as if it happened yesterday.
SJ: That’s right, that’s absolutely right. Their recall of events and their feelings about it were quite vivid. And when I told the guys at ESPN about doing the film one of the things that I told them that the film could be about was a contemporary reflection on that time. But when I got down there the great majority of people I interviewed it didn’t come across that way. People didn’t say ‘back then I felt this, today I feel this’, I didn’t get any of those kinds of comments from either side of the Allen Iverson debate. People tended to feel as passionately and as strongly today about what happened seventeen years ago then, as I imagine, they felt back then.
SLAM: In contrast to the people who were willing to talk, did you find people reluctant because race is such a touchy issue?
SJ: That’s the other aspect of the film that I felt was important to include. I wanted to indicate just how difficult it was to get certain key people to participate in the film because for every passionate and outspoken person in the film there was someone who I really wanted to hear from that I couldn’t get to participate in the film. Whether it was some of the white bowlers who got embroiled in this brawl back then or whether it was judges who were once prosecutors.
There was at least one newspaper editor, an African American, who felt very torn between the reactions to the press coverage in the black community. She would go to her church and it would be very tough for her at her church. There were a lot of people that didn’t want to reopen some of these old wounds that they felt at the time. And I don’t blame them for that, but it was amazing to me that those wounds were so fresh seventeen years later that it would cause them to not even want to be in the film. I was pretty amazed at that. Whether people participated in the film and spoke passionately or declined to participate, it all springs from the same well. This was such a divisive and sort of difficult time that people have not moved beyond it in some sense, and in some ways still live with it or they absolutely don’t want to revisit it because it will feel just as fresh as the day it happened.
SLAM: So in your experience with these different perspectives have you found that white people in general are reluctant to talk about race in fear of being called a racist themselves?
SJ: Yeah I do think that. I think that race can be difficult for everyone to talk about in this country, but I have found over the years, and this film was no exception, that it seems to be harder—and I’m generalizing—for white people to speak candidly about race because they are worried that if they don’t’ sort of say the most supportive things about black people or a situation involving black people that they could be perceived as racist. I think that’s why the folks that speak up in this film that are white who felt that Allen Iverson was clearly guilty and needed to pay a price, I really give them a lot of credit for speaking so candidly about it because they kind of put aside that legitimate fear. They were people who did not feel they’re racist at all and therefore they feel like they can speak out. But I do think it’s hard, and I think it’s hard for blacks and whites to have this conversation with each other. I think that’s one of the reasons why this incident back in this time was so divisive because it was hard to get blacks and whites to speak with each other and listen to each other. Instead people were sort of more shouting at each other or closing themselves off to the other side, and that’s a pretty common occurrence in this country. Any time we have an incident that has some racial aspect to it, I think it immediately becomes more difficult for people to address it in an honest and productive way. And this was no exception, and in that respect I don’t know if we’ve changed much.
SLAM: In an interview with “Stop Smiling” Michael Wilbon was asked why he never got into politics to which he responded with “Jackie Robinson hit a baseball in the majors eight years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of that bus”. Do you find it easier to talk about things like race through the medium of sports and pop culture as opposed to being forthright and blunt?
SJ: I think it’s hard to really address questions of race in any kind of medium. You want to be able to address it in the context of something that’s happening whether it’s Rosa Parks on the bus or the civil rights movement or in this case sports or Jackie Robinson integrating the major leagues or as I’ve learned relatively recently that the NFL was integrated and then resegregated for a while then integrated again. I think what’s interesting about sports and race is that it’s never been as neat as we want to believe it to be. We want to believe that once Jackie Robinson integrated baseball that the significance of that paved the way for equality in sports and that sports is one of the few places where a person’s worth and value is measured by what they do and not who they are and what color they are. And again all of that is true to some extent, there’s no question that some of that’s true. I mean it is amazing when you think about that eight years before Rosa Parks did what she did there was Jackie Robinson being very much a pioneer in baseball and professional sports. All of that is true, but what we too often do is we overstate the positive attributes of what sports can do in terms of tearing down barriers for race because there are plenty of people out there who when the Bulls were winning all those championships who cheered the Bulls on and maybe even went and watched the games and celebrated their victories and thought that Michael Jordan was the greatest player ever, but then turned around and in their workday world held far from enlightened attitudes about black people. I think what happens a lot of times are that athletes get separated just like celebrities from other people who are viewed in a different light, that can be positive and negative.
For me the whole thing is just complicated and I think Allen Iverson is a perfect sort of poster child for just how complicated our feelings are about race. Clearly some of what motivates his biggest detractors is that he has this persona of this hip-hop, tough ghetto kid who was going to do what he needed to do and would not step back from anybody. Those qualities for some translated into immature and thuggish behavior, and for others it was he was going to be his own man and look what he overcame. That is what’s so amazing to me really about Allen Iverson because in a sense just like how this incident was something of a Rashomon, meaning depending on who you are and how you look at what happened really defines the conclusion you came to in terms of things like guilt and innocence and appropriate punishment or inappropriate punishment. I think the same is sort of true of Allen Iverson the person, he has something of a Rashomon character in that depending on who you are when you look at Allen Iverson, you may be looking at the same characteristics and same qualities and coming to completely different judgments about what those qualities are.
I say at the end [of the film], and I can’t quote it exactly, but I sort of say that maybe Allen Iverson is a representative of our complex feelings and struggles around race and class and innocence and guilt and redemption. And I think he really does embody sort of all the complexities and contradictions we struggle with when it comes to these issues. In a sense as young as he was then you can kind of understand that through this prism of time how he might have been that kind of athlete that would provoke such a strong and divisive reaction when this incident happened.
SLAM: No Crossover is scheduled to air on ESPN for the 30 for 30 series, which means this film will be available to a wider audience than Hoop Dreams. What sort of reaction are you hoping to get out of people?
SJ: I don’t’ know it’ll be really interesting to see. I was at ESPN a week ago to show the film, they had an employee screening that was sponsored by the African American employee organization within ESPN, which is a huge campus and there was a lot of people. We had a really nice turn out for the screening and we had an hour long discussion afterwards about race and sports and this incident and what did it mean. It was great. I guess what I hope like every filmmaker is that I hope this film makes people talk about some of these issues. I really really tried to make this film balanced, not in that typical journalistic way meaning the film has no point of view or here’s this and here’s that, but balanced in that I really endeavored to try and make sure you hear in the film the different voices and different views of what happened and give everybody their due in terms of that. So I hope that this provokes real discussion and real rumination, and I hope for the community seeing this film that maybe some of the discussion that you wish had happened in the wake of all this maybe could happen or you might get people to think about other people’s points of view a little differently instead of being entrenched in your own.
I think this film on ESPN…I’m really excited about that. There are other films in the series that this is true of as well. That’s what’s so really great about the series is that these are not the kinds of film and this is not the kind of film that one would one would normally find tuning in to ESPN. This is an unusual film to see on ESPN and I think that’s great and I hope the ESPN viewers think about issues beyond just Allen Iverson, but rather what does his story and what does his life and what does this incident in this point in time have to say to us today about where we’re at.