Q & A with Steve James
Film maker and social justice champion behind “Hoop Dreams” and “America to Me”
Photo by Greg Gorman
Documentary film maker Steve James has received numerous film critics award since the 1994 release of his ground-breaking behind-the-scenes sports documentary, “Hoop Dreams.” Working with Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, he has produced movies that share themes of social inquiry, particularly in connection with inner city and impoverished communities. His latest work, the 10-part documentary “America to Me” which recently aired on STARZ, is a year-long immersion into one of the Chicago area’s most progressive and diverse public schools, Oak Park Rover Forest High School. Originally from Hampton, Virginia, James is a 25-year resident of Oak Park.
What brought you to the Midwest and to Oak Park in particular?
SJ: My girlfriend at the time was at Southern Illinois University. I was interested in film and saw they had classes, so it was kind of like, “What if I came out there?” She was agreeable and we eventually got married (and we’re still married). I ended up getting a Masters in film and had the idea for what would become “Hoop Dreams.” I knew Chicago would be a great place to do that story, not only because Michael Jordan was there but just, you know, the basketball culture of Chicago being what it is at the high school level and otherwise. We chose Oak Park because of its proximity to the ity. We read about the community and its history and what it was trying to do and we thought that sounded pretty good.
What was your very first experience with documentary films?
SJ: It was a production class I took at SIU using Super 8 cameras. For my first film, the idea was that people’s cars say something about who they are. So I talked to several people about their cars and filmed them inside of their cars (laughs). It was kind of an interesting way of getting a portrait of people. The second film was on our landlady. She was a very religious woman who played the organ and had an eye patch. She was quite a character and I just thought she would be an interesting subject.
Did you try other film genres?
SJ: When I started out I fell in love with scripted movies, real “movie movies” as we say. My first fledgling attempts at film were of making my own stuff with tortured narratives. Once I got to SIU there was a professor who was pretty influential.
He loved documentary. I think partly because of falling under his mentorship I really liked documentaries. I had a bit of a journalism bent before I fell in love with films, so it kind of combined a desire to tell stories with that journalist part of me.
Where did the idea for “Hoop Dreams” come from?
SJ: I grew up playing basketball, it was the one thing in my youth that I had a passion for. I just had an epiphany one day when I thought it would be interesting to do a film that looked at what the sport meant to African American ball players. I had grown up playing with and against a lot of black players. I knew how much it had meant to me but I knew it was a different level of meaning with black families. It wasn’t lost on me that the idea that basketball was a “ticket.” I had some pretty interesting experiences around race growing up in Virginia and that fueled my interest.
The movie turned into a years-long project. Is that what you expected?
SJ: Originally it was going to be a short film and we were going to shoot it in three weeks. That didn’t quite work out.
Do you find yourself getting involved in the lives you’re documenting?
SJ: In “Hoop Dreams” we were trying to observe the boys lives while at the same time building a relationship with them and their families. I think I’ve focused on not just being an impartial observer. I am there trying to empathetic ally but honestly tell a story. And I think that building that relationship yields greater intimacy and trust and ultimately leads to a truer and deeper story.
Which films are most meaningful to you?
SJ: The second film I made, “Stevie,” was about a kid that I was a Big Brother to when we were living in southern Illinois. It’s the most personal film I’ve made and certainly the hardest emotionally. I made a film called “The Interrupters,” which looked at violence in Chicago through the eyes of conflict mediators — or violence interrupters. And then there’s the film about Roger Ebert (the noted movie critic), “Life Itself.” I’ve made a lot of films and they’re all precious to me in some way,
but those stand out to me. Of course, “America to Me” was probably the most demanding. It was such an ambitious undertaking to document as many kids as we did over the course of a whole year, with all the things that go on in the school.
How did people in Oak Park respond to “America to Me”?
SJ: The school had opposed the making of the documentary but it happened despite their objections. In Oak Park the response has largely been very positive. I know there are people who feel we were too critical and others who felt that we weren’t critical enough (laughs). The film looks at race and education and white privilege — all of those issues as they play out in a place where you’d think we’d have had our best shot at solving them. Oak Park is a liberal, diverse community with a well-funded public school system and it takes a lot of pride in its racial history. I think the film is already having an impact. There is a much higher level of activism going on among students at the school, especially students of color. It’s been a catalyst for a level of activism that hasn’t happened in that community before. There are teachers that have taken it to heart but there are others who are very resistant and decided they weren’t going to watch the film. It’s quite a range of reactions.
As a film maker, what do you like about Chicago?
SJ: Well, there’s just so many great stories here. I really do think of Chicago as my true home. It’s a city that’s incredible in so many ways and complicated in so many ways. It is a Midwest cultural mecca, yet it’s also beset with incredibly serious problems. It’s one of the most racially divisive cities in America, even though there are many examples of people coming together across lines of race. So it’s kind of everything (laughs). I could just make films about Chicago and never venture outside.
Looking ahead, what projects are next in line for you?
SJ: I’m in the middle of a new film that I’m really excited about. We don’t have a title yet, but it’s a portrait of Chicago at this particularly significant moment when there’s this incredible mayoral race going on and all this other stuff like the Jason Van Dyke trial — and corruption. It’s an incredible time on so many levels. I’m doing a portrait of the city with all of those as part of the story. Release in early 2020 is the goal. I’ve got things that are percolating but I tend to work best when I focus. I love when I can completely throw myself into one project.
What interests you, outside of film making?
I’m pretty much a one-trick pony . . . time with family. What books do you have at your bedside? I have a ton of books but ask me how far I’m getting in them! The last great book I read was Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I tend to readfor research more than pleasure.
Favorite spot for a quick bite?
Cozy Corner in Oak Park because I’m a breakfast kind of guy. How about for a dinner date? Cucina Paradiso in Oak Park.
Best area movie theatre?
Lake Theatre in Oak Park.
If not Oak Park, where would you choose to live?
In the city, but I don’t want to be a part of “gentrification.” It’s a tricky one. Lakeside is an interesting neighborhood.
Three words that best describe you?
Passionate, irreverent and obsessive.
How do your colleagues describe you?
Driven — and funny, I think.