It’s a mad mad filmmaking world: The art of self-unemployment

“Have you ever feared for your life while filming?”

This was one of the questions asked at Wednesday night’s Athenaeum guest lecture. Steve James, a director and producer, has been on campus since Tuesday to discuss his career and share his passions. Most well known for his 1994 film, “Hoop Dreams,” James started his career long before his first film, on what James described as a “journey of discovery.” Dressed casually in plaid and jeans, James addressed the eager audience and told of his life story and inspiring accomplishments.

(Josh Shettler/CU Independent Graphic Illustration)

Born in Hampton, Va. in a self-proclaimed “white, redneck neighborhood,” James discovered race quickly. His childhood neighborhood had a reputation for being a place blacks did not dare enter, and to this day, Confederate flags are displayed on the porch of many homes there. James was well aware of the separation between whites and blacks, beginning in his childhood and continuing into his young adult life. At basketball games in high school, student fans chose to sit on opposite sides of the court, depending on the color of their skin –which pretty much defeated the idea of school spirit. Yet, high school was a learning experience for James, and although he wasn’t very interested in academics, James made it to college and onto the next stage of his life.

After a year and half of partying and playing basketball, James discovered his brain. In an intro to English class, in which James couldn’t substitute CliffNotes for reading the actual book, he found his “gateway drug” into academics: “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.” by Robert Coover. From then on James decided to be a “smarter person.” He majored in communication and went on to get his master’s degree in film from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. In Illinois, James got the inspiration for his Academy Award-nominated film, “Hoop Dreams”. However, it wouldn’t be until several years later that his idea would become a reality.

After graduating, James moved to Chicago where he would endure plenty of humiliation in the commercial production business. Getting a job was tough, and so James took what was offered: “the lowest rung on the ladder,” or production assistant. James was quite possibly the most educated PA, ever. He had to put his master’s degree aside for a while. James recalled tedious tasks, like going through 12 boxes of cornflakes to make the “perfect bowl,” driving a “cube truck” into scaffolding and sweeping countless stages. If it weren’t for his “passion project” being produced on the side, he would have quit the industry completely.

It was seven and a half years later when “Hoop Dreams” was complete. It was a brilliant start to his career, earning him over 10 awards, and although James believes that he has made better films since then, “Hoop Dreams” continues to be his most famous movie. James talked about the movie very genuinely when he said, “It is as much about the American dream as it is basketball.” Many Americans can relate to this film in the sense that achieving “the American dream is just as illusive as making it to the NBA.” The film, like several others of James’ films, includes many stereotypical characters, but what James wants his audience to see is that there is much more to any person than his or her stereotype. The subjects in his movies confide in the filmmakers, even though they are outsiders, and they teach the outside world about their own world.

James has been a part of many powerful and inspiring projects. Simply watching the trailer for his newest movie “The Interrupters” got me choked up and sent chills running down my spine. There is definitely something to be said for James’ talented work. He truly captures the audience’s attention and provokes their emotions in every film he makes. He is an ethical man who understands people will be more honest with you if they have a measure of control in the movie-making process. This is something you can see in all of his films: a true connection with the subject and the one telling the story, aka James.

It was wonderful to hear James’ stories and personal accounts after seeing his films. One might think that because the content of his work can be so heartbreaking and dark, James is a cynical man; yet that is far from the truth. He is a vibrant and passionate person who is dedicated to what he does. By doing what he loves, he gives audiences all around the world an opportunity to think about their own lives and reflect on what they have.

 Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Leala King at


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