It’s been a fantastic year for documentaries. Box office dollars and critical kudos have piled up for movies such as Bowling for Columbine, Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans. With the incendiary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Errol Morris’s masterpiece The Fog of War set for release later this year, many critics’ “top 10” lists could be dominated by non-fiction films. Yet one of the best documentaries of 2003 has been largely overlooked in the commotion. Stevie, directed by Steve James (who also directed the landmark Hoop Dreams), is a brilliant portrait of people most audiences usually ignore.
Steve James started off as a journalism major in college but got turned on to making movies in a film appreciation class. But you could argue that he hasn’t left journalism too far behind.
“The kind of documentaries I’ve always been interested in making are stories, not issue-oriented but more journalistic enterprises,” James explains as we sit at his home in Oak Park, Illinois. “I think there’s something really compelling about following a story, where you don’t know where it’s going.”
Stevie is a perfect example. During his college years, James was a Big Brother to an 11-year-old boy named Stevie but lost touch after he moved to Chicago. When James moved back to southern Illinois 15 years later, he wanted to reconnect with his former “little brother.” He planned to make a “modest” documentary about their reunion, envisioning “an impressionistic portrait about getting back together.” That all changed with a dramatic turn of events in Stevie’s life. He was arrested for molesting his eight-year-old cousin, and the real story began.
“That’s what’s compelling about this kind of film,” James says. “If you, as a director, remain flexible to where the story takes the film, that’s going to yield a much more interesting movie.”
Being flexible proved critical as Stevie’s circumstances changed over the next few years. Though his legal troubles certainly provide a timeline for the movie, the film focuses much more on Stevie’s home life: his relationship with his girlfriend Tonya, his efforts to reconnect with his mother, and his half sister’s attempts to have a baby.
James paints intimate portraits of each person in Stevie’s life. Telling the story of these real-life characters without being exploitive proved challenging.
“The ethical issues are the hardest part about doing this kind of film,” he says. “The thrill and excitement of following a story, about being involved in people’s lives is undeniable. You feel like you’re living in someone else’s life, someone else’s experience. But you also feel like a leech. With Stevie, those concerns about exploitation were so acute that they had to be part of the story.”
So James himself becoming a primary figure in his own film. The documentary shows James trying to get Stevie to do the right thing and trying to bridge the enormous barriers that divide his family. Through it all, we see James wondering not only what’s best for Stevie but whether his own presence is helping or hurting.
“I decided that if I was going to do this film, I had to be as candid as possible about my involvement in the story, in his life,” he says.
This leads to one of the movie’s primary themes: class. It’s rare to see a movie today that touches on this country’s economic divisions, even in the more progressive world of documentaries. But the film clearly illustrates the stark contrast between James’ relative privilege and Stevie’s economic and social dysfunction. Unlike the Jerry Springers of film and television, though, who mock or vilify people in Stevie’s position, James works to help us understand.
“I think we all have a lot more in common than we often think,” he says. “Part of making a film and spending so much time with someone is that you’re looking for commonalities; you’re looking for a common bond with them. It’s easy to vilify people. It’s a lot harder to redeem them without excusing what they’ve done. That was the hardest thing about doing this film—how do we show Stevie honestly yet hopefully?”
That desire to show people with both honesty and dignity extends to all of the story’s characters. Stevie’s mom Bernice, his sister Brenda, his step-grandmother Verna and his girlfriend Tonya are all portrayed with amazing sensitivity. We come to understand these people—what their hopes and dreams are, why they act the way they do, and why they often fail. The film evokes a sense of compassion for them even when they appear to have made bad choices.
One of the most spectacular examples of James’s deep empathy for his characters occurs halfway through the film. Stevie and Tonya have come to Chicago to visit James and his wife, as well as Tonya’s friend Tricia. We first see Tricia confined to her bed, wearing thick, unattractive glasses and talking with a significant speech impediment. What follows in this extraordinary ten-minute scene explodes common stereotypes of disabled people. Tricia emerges as the movie’s wisest soul, calling Stevie out for his own bigotry and self-absorption. But she’s not merely a foil for the audience; she’s a complex character who forces us to confront our own assumptions about people different from us.
James attributes the success of this year’s documentaries to a combination of factors.
“People who are looking to go into film are now thinking about documentaries,” he says. “A few years ago, there was the romance of being the indie director, of being the next Tarantino. That’s given way somewhat to people who want to make documentaries. Not because they don’t have any story ideas of their own but because they want to see the world.”
He also points out that affordable digital video cameras have made it easier to make theater-quality films. But James says he believes another, more fundamental factor has spawned more recent documentaries: a desire for “something real.”
“The further Hollywood gets from the real and even the further a lot of independent films get from the real, the more people hunger for reality.”
When asked about the director who’s influenced him the most, James heads back to that film appreciation class where he first encountered Jean Renoir—”because he was the most humanistic of directors. His films are about life and everything in it.” Though Stevie may focus on one man and his family, it’s also about life and pretty much everything in it. Indeed, it’s one of the most honest and affecting documentaries of the year.