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2016 Outstanding Achievement Award: Steve James


“… there is something about being an outsider which allows you to look at something with fresh eyes. Whereas if you’ve lived it, you tend not to see things which have been there all along, because it’s such a part of your daily existence. However, as an insider you also can have tremendous insight from having lived it.” - Steve James

For more than a quarter century, Steve James has humbly used his outsider status to earn the trust of his subjects. He has also highlighted a collaborative approach to documentary filmmaking that rewards audiences with a powerful point of view and encourages social change.

Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA was an early inspiration for James to pursue his career as a feature filmmaker. He shares Kopple’s ability to embed himself within close-knit communities, capturing their common struggles in film to achieve greater public consciousness. His observational approach gives subjects agency, yet James’s personal story also becomes part of the narrative in a number of his films. His connection to the issues he’s addressing gives viewers a chance to experience the subject matter on a deeper emotional level.

James’s life and relationship with his subjects are at the forefront of his critically acclaimed second feature film, Stevie. And his formative years play an essential role in No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson. Through these two films, issues of class, race, violence and family are presented through narratives of James’s past that resurface in the present. He exists as both insider and outsider. Revisiting his hometown of Hampton, Virginia, for No Crossover, James reveals his struggles growing up in a blue-collar family in a racially divided community. His drive to address social inequities stems from these early experiences.

After graduating from Southern Illinois University with a masters in film, he became involved with Kartemquin Films, a Chicago-based non-profit “collaborative centre for documentary media makers who seek to foster a more engaged and empowered society.” His first film with Kartemquin, Hoop Dreams, remains one of the most important and influential films of its time, and its resonance only grows.

Although James is never visibly present in his vérité treatment of the Agee and Gates families, his narration throughout Hoop Dreams provides detail without being omniscient. The challenges and progression of the boys’ lives are direct, raw and immediate as James’s voice connects the viewer with the subject. His narration consciously brings us more deeply into the journeys of the subjects, but doesn’t position him at their center.

From Hoop Dreams forward, James’s films never lecture or preach morality, but provide an opportunity for emotional attachment. The focus on empathy, and not just awareness of injustice, has made him a role model for filmmakers and activists alike. His long-term commitment to the collaborative nature of his projects, and the awareness of his outsider status, creates a safe space for his subjects. In many cases, they are given a voice they are otherwise denied. By avoiding outside interviews, he reciprocates the trust that’s been placed in him, explaining, “I don’t want to hear from experts, I want to hear from the people who are living in that reality to be the ‘experts,’ the voices of wisdom.”

Documentary remains one of the most powerful tools for creating awareness and motivation for change on a mass scale. The subjects of James’s films are specific to their locale, be they death-row inmates in Texas or gang mediators in the projects of Chicago, yet the messages are universal. James has deservedly received accolades from around the globe, not only for his contributions to the documentary form, but for his admirable dedication to working with people whose stories truly matter.

— Alexander Rogalski
Canadian Programmer



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