Directed by Steve James
The ESPN 30 for 30 series was advertised as featuring 30 films by acclaimed filmmakers to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the television station. I was always stuck by that curious word “acclaimed” which was used to describe the filmmakers. Don’t get me wrong, thus far I have enjoyed the series a great deal, but a quick glance at the series and I can tell you that I only recognize the names of a handful of the directors attached to the installments. Steve James was one of those names and that alone made me excited to see this particular film, even if the subject of Allen Iverson didn’t hold any special place in my heart. James directed my favorite film from 2011, The Interrupters, as well as one of the great sports documentaries of all time, 1994’s Hoop Dreams.
Interestingly enough, James was in Chicago filming Hoop Dreams at the same time his hometown of Hampton, Virginia was experiencing a controversy surrounding one of its many star high school athletes, Allen Iverson. In the early 90s, after a successful run to the state title in football for Bethel High School, Allen Iverson was involved in a bowling alley altercation which was sparked by a racial slur uttered by a white man toward Iverson’s group of friends. A brawl ensued and an innocent girl was knocked in the head by a flying chair. It took the newspapers a week to report the incident, but once they did, the story, in connection with Iverson caught everybody’s attention. Meanwhile, Iverson led his basketball team to the state title as well.
For some reason this is the type of story that I figure I would have heard by now, especially based on Iverson’s somewhat cavalier attitude on the basketball court. He was always portrayed as a little bit of a punk and while I may not have liked him very much, I had no defense for liking his massive arsenal of talent on the basketball court. Yet this was the first I had heard of this incident. Maybe I just have been under a rock or just too young to have heard about it or remembered it, and James does not dwell on its obscurity, so I must assume that I just didn’t know about it. That being said, the style of the film paints Iverson as a flawed human being, and one who is capable of bad things, but also capable of remorse and charity.
Every athlete it seems like is charitable, but Iverson seemed much more sincere than many often do and that had to do with his origins. He was actually convicted and sentenced to up to 5 years in prison for his role in the brawl, which to this day remains basically unknown. There was shoddy home video footage of the brawl, but no one seems to know the truth about who threw the chair that hit the innocent girl in the head. I think James does a good job at asking the sources all the right questions. The failing of the documentary is that the truth is lost somewhere within, which sets the reputation and past experience of “The Answer” as something which comes off as very sincere. You can see it in his face he is not 100% happy with how his life played out, but who ever is really? This imperfection and signs of remorse is what makes it a human story and one that ultimately works.
I am curious to know whether James received an extra 30 minutes from ESPN to lengthen his episode to 80 instead of the standard 50, or if it was always planned that way because the film definitely gains from the extra time. James is able to paint a much fuller picture from start to finish to help put the incident in perspective. It is not a great film, and that I think comes from the approach of James, which is that of a hometown kid looking for the truth. It may have been a better film had James been there himself when it happened. But alas, he was not. The conspiracy theories of tampering from rival Hampton High School, and nearby Hampton University to get Iverson’s sentence to be shortened, which ultimately was, are entertaining even if they don’t add much to the overall story other than atmosphere. I don’t think there was much James could do with this film to make it a great sports documentary, especially considering Iverson refused an invitation to be interviewed for it, but it is at least a decent one.