I have plans to see a lot of docs on the big screen this year, and I thought it would be fun to start reviewing them.
I believe that film, documentary in particular, is political. There is something special about seeing a film with a public audience, especially if there is a panel or Q&A. One of the highest ideals we can aspire to is to make media that engenders real discussion of issues.
My goal is not to review every single film I see, but I’m going to limit myself to those I see at public screenings: no DVDs, no cable or Netflix.
First up is NO CROSSOVER: THE TRIAL OF ALLEN IVERSON by Steve James, the director of HOOP DREAMS. On March 29, SilverDocs sponsored a special screening with the filmmaker at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring. The film is part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series and will air on the network in April.
Hoop Dreams is a special film to a lot of people. If you are my age, and you are into documentary, it is likely that this film made an impression on you when it came out 15 years ago. Perhaps more than any other film of it’s era, Hoop Dreams seemed to teach us the potential for documentary to get at the emotional heart of a story.
So my anticipation level was high for Mr. James to cover the controversial 1993 trial of provocative NBA star Allen Iverson. As a Philly native, I have been a fan of Iverson’s game for a long time, but I knew only a bit about his legal troubles as a celebrated (and vilified) high school athlete in coastal Virginia.
On the surface, this may look like a familiar story: a “racially charged” incident, a young black male railroaded through the justice system, and a community divided . . . but there is more here, and much of it less familiar and more challenging.
How does race divide not just a community, but also a family and even an individual? Are Americans, as attorney general Eric Holder said, cowards about race? And perhaps most striking to me personally: can a white filmmaker justly tell the story of a black subject?
This film goes there, and to a lot of other places that are complex and vital. Iverson himself would not sit for an interview, but James still delivers new insights into what is a perplexing public personality. Toward the end of the film, we see an 18-year-old Iverson receive his GED with obvious pride at a homemade ceremony. This is juxtaposed with the same man, 10 years later and now a millionaire, moved to tears as he is thanked for a scholarship.
But this is far from a hagiography. We are asked to ponder still deeper questions: has Iverson transcended his circumstances, or does he still carry those wounds deep in his psyche? And to what extent are his injuries self-inflicted?
I liked this film a lot, but I might have liked the QA even more. One way you know your film really worked is when viewers feel the need to give an extended introduction about their own identity to preface their question. If you have been to many Q&As, you have probably witnessed this phenomenon. An audience member comes to the mic, and before she or he can actually get a question out, there is the need to explain where they are from, how race was talked about in their family growing up, and maybe something about their own racial or ethnic identity.
This makes for a slow panel, but it is a sign that the film has touched people in a deep place. They cannot help but reveal these things because the film has forced them into self-examination . . . powerful.
James himself was self-effacing and rather brilliant, and journalist Kevin Blackistone was erudite and provocative. Comparing Iverson to Mohammed Ali, he rightly identified representations of black masculinity as one of the most vexing aspects of American racial history. This led to some disagreement from audience members and some more very smart analysis from the panel and the audience alike.
And there we were, a relatively diverse group of over one hundred, talking about race. REALLY talking about it. Agreeing and disagreeing, pushing on points, relenting, listening, and maybe even (at least partially, at least for a moment) understanding.