STEVIE (2002)

BECOMING BARABBAS

Steve James, the director of this exceptional documentary, in 1985 while he was still a college student at Southern Illinois University, joined in the Advocate Big Brother program. He was paired up with Stephen Dale Fielding, a very troubled 11-year old lad from the trailer-trash town of Pomona. This was a painful experience for James. He had stated that he actually felt relief when his time was completed with the disruptive youth. Stevie was in distress. He needed a lot more than just a Big Brother—he needed a Life Do-Over. What he received instead was “professional help”, and he never recovered from it.

Stephen was an illegitimate child. His mother, Bernice, was consumed with guilt and anger, sodden with booze, and not able or willing to accept her mandatory role as “Mother”. She took it all out on the child, beating and abusing Stevie for most of his formative years. She married Arvin Hagler, but the new stepfather had no desire to harness the spirit of the rebellious young boy. So Stephen was handed over to Arvin’s mother, who lived next door. Verna, the step-grandmother, did what she could, but she too was of little help. Stevie became incorrigible. There did not seem to be even a shred of salvation for the wayward angry boy.

So he was given up to the State of Illinois. Stevie made the rounds to dozens of foster homes, where mostly he was beaten down and raped repeatedly. He began to rebel, to lash out, in school and in the community. He was constantly in trouble. Troublemaker became his identity—his way of receiving attention, and respect of the wrong kind from the wrong people. He spent long stretches in juvenile detention and reform school.

Soon he graduated to petty thefts and stealing cars, and he began to spend months at a time in the County Jail. He tried to “look the part”. He let his thinning hair grow long, and he got himself several large tattoos. He could not afford dental care, so his teeth turned as black as his twisted psyche. He became a follower, and a minor member of the fraternal order of Bad Boys, criminals, con men, white supremacists, and red necks. A decade swirled by. Stevie was now 21 years old.

Steve James, in the meantime, became a filmmaker, a documentarian. He released a 30-minute short, STOP SUBSTANCE ABUSE, in 1986. Five years later he released another short documentary, GRASSROOTS CHICAGO (1991), followed by HIGHER GOALS (1993). His big break came with the release of HOOP DREAMS in 1994. It was a fantastic documentary that played out like a fictional movie. It made a lot of money, and was showered with critical acclaim. It was so balanced, so dramatic, that some audience members had a hard time accepting it as non-fiction. It seemed to be more than a documentary.

In 1995, he began working on his idea for a new documentary, STEVIE. It sputtered at first, and was slow to congeal. While working on STEVIE, James, of course, still had to make a living. He co-wrote the script for PREFONTAINE (1997). He directed the TNT television movie, PASSING GLORY (1999), with Andre Braugher and Rip Torn, While still editing STEVIE, in 2002, he directed JOE & MAX, a television film about the lives of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. In 2004, he was one of seven directors to work on THE NEW AMERICANS, a television mini-series. He directed the Nigerian story. This year, 2005, he is putting the finishing touches on his new documentary, REEL PARADISE, the true story of a family that moved clear out to Fiji, in order to manage the world’s most remote movie theatre. Steve James is not a bad director of ! fictional works, but he keeps returning to the form that he succeeded at best—the documentary. He understands that a “good” documentary can be just as eventful, compelling, and as full of symbolism and emotion as any good work of fiction.

Looking at the credits for STEVIE, one begins to get an inkling of how a documentary could be created. It takes a village of friends. James helped to produce it. He puts his money into his own creativity. Robert May stepped up to be the executive producer, and they recruited four more producers. Interestingly, one of the producers, Adam Singer, functioned also as the soundman. Another producer, Gordon Quinn, was also one of the three credited cinematographers. Dirk Powell scored the music. This was his first movie project. He’s only worked on one other. I liked his musical interludes. The music set up a lot of the scenes—giving them more dramatic tension. They used one commercial song—Willie Nelson’s THE MAKER.

The cinematography was credited to three men. The first, Gordon Quinn founded the Kartemquin Film group. He has produced thirty documentaries, including this one. He directed four of those films. He has been a cameraman on eight films since 1968, and he has worked with Steve James on three of his films. Next up was Peter Gilbert, who has likewise been a film producer for ten years. He, also, has been a lenser on 7 films, including HOOP DREAMS (1994), and PREFONTAINE (1997).

Lastly, there was Dana Kupper, who has a fledging career, only having worked on three films as cameraman, including assisting James on THE NEW AMERICANS (2004). Documentaries, like STEVIE, work on a shoestring budget. So it appears that the crew all needs crossover competencies. At 140 minutes long, it felt slow in spots—slow but still engaging. Perhaps it could use some tighter editing, but I can’t recall many extraneous moments or scenes.

So, in the year 1995, Steve James, flush with his success from HOOP DREAMS, traveled back to Pomona, back in time, to discover what had happened to his former Little Brother, Stephen Fielding. He found Stevie at his step-grandmother’s home, and the 21 year old greeted him warily, all haystack hair, jailhouse tatts, shirtless, oversized glasses, a Harley ball cap, and a twisted smirk. James, at first, conceived of a film that would illustrate how the system had failed Stevie, but that raw reunion with the young man left him shaken. He could not, he did not return for two more years. By 1997, Stephen had taken charge of the direction of the storyline. He thrust the film tangentially off to a much darker place.

Stevie was in jail; accused of molesting an 8-year old girl that he had been babysitting. He had been drinking. He wrote out a “confession” for the police. Later he denied everything, and pleaded innocent of all charges. The young girl’s mother, interviewed later by James, raved about,” A 24-year old man who could get an erection, a goddamned hard on, while playing with an 8-year old girl.” This woman was a friend of Stevie’s half-sister, Brenda. Brenda was the legitimate child in the family. As such while growing up, she was “left alone”, and was not abused by her parents. The stick and the belt were reserved for Stevie. She tried to be a surrogate parent for Stephen. Her husband, Doug, spent a lot of time with his disturbed brother-in-law. Brenda & Doug lived in a mobile home adjacent to Verna’s house. Stephen so! metimes stayed with Verna, and sometimes he stayed in his own ramshackle trailer.

Stevie contacted James. Without substantial evidence against him, he was to be released on only a $100.00 bail. He asked James for it. James declined. But regardless, Stevie was soon free, waiting for his trial, and the film could progress further. James has been accused of inserting himself much too deeply into that dysfunctional family, but I didn’t see it that way. I think James worked hard at remaining objective. But how could he remove himself from the cast of participants. This film was as much his story as it was Stevie’s. So James found himself thrust in front of the camera, along with his wife, Judy, and their children.

No one seemed to buy Stephen’s claims at innocence. His step-grandmother, his mother, his half sister, and his girlfriend, Tonya—all admitted that they felt that he probably was “guilty”. It tore at their hearts, but they could not separate their suspicions from the facts. James claimed that he hoped Stevie was innocent, and tried to withhold his judgment, but when he invited Stephen and Tonya up to Chicago for the weekend, it became apparent that he too thought Stevie was guilty. James would not let them stay at his home. They stayed at a motel. He would not let him interact with his children. Judy James, who counseled sex-offenders for a living, never felt for an instant that Stevie was innocent. She wanted to get him started ASAP on some form of rehab, or more counseling. When she talked with him, it was very hard f! or her to separate her compassion from her professional instincts. Stephen just stared back at her blankly. She may as well have been speaking in Martian.

While they were visiting James in the big city, there was this great scene that took place at a hopping Disco. Stevie was being treated like a minor celebrity, as the “star” of the movie being filmed there. Everyone seemed to have been providing him with “free” drinks. He became quite inebriated. Soon he began to act out. He grabbed his fiancée, Tonya and tried to get her to “dance sexy” for him. She was too reserved to comply, and this enraged him. He yelled at her. She screamed back,” No dirty dancing!” She had to repeat it several times before he backed off. Finally, he became so wild that the bouncers had to throw him out of the place. James and the camera followed him outside. Stevie pulled his shirt off, staggered about, slobbering, and cussing out his tormentors. Soon! he just collapsed and sat cross-legged and shirtless there on the sidewalk, staring at the cracks and mumbling threats and obscenities. James was angry and considered just leaving him there. The truth of Stephen Dale Fielding—the drunken troubled slacker and pariah was there on exhibit—alongside that busy Chicago boulevard. Steve James was disgusted. Stevie never noticed.

Each time that we would revisit Stevie, it was obvious that he did not have a car. Perhaps his driver’s license was revoked. Perhaps he had too many DWI’s, or had stolen too many cars. Regardless, all he could do was ride his three-wheeled ATV. While riding on it, he would lean forward, like a child on a tricycle, imagining himself on a powerful Harley-Davidson motorcycle. There was a marvelous scene where he joined his step-grandmother at the cemetery. He rode right up onto the grass amongst the tombstones. Verna chided him, and his terse response was,” Christ—they ain’t gonna do nothing to me!”

Parallel events began to take shape during the filming—Stevie’s baptism to please Bernice and Tonya—Bernice’s penance, religious fervor, and her attempts at reconciliation with Stephen, including her visits with him while he was in jail—Brenda’s intense attempts at getting pregnant, then her hospitalization for cysts on her ovaries, followed by her miracle pregnancy, and the birth of her daughter—Stevie and Tonya’s announcement and intent to “get married, no matter what anybody thinks!” while visiting James in Chicago—Verna’s sad eyed and helpless demeanor when confronted with Stevie, or even was just asked questions about him—Tonya’s level headedness and her loyality to Stephen regardless of the facts, events, and his actions, despite her probable mental challenges [It was a refreshing scene when her mother was interviewed, and we could hear a similar speech impediment from her.]

--the several offers made to Stephen by the courts that would have allowed a plea bargain to be put in place. Watching his eyes as he turned down these offers, one could sense the thickness of his ignorance and the density of his arrogance. Like a child, he did not want to admit his guilt. He tried to deal with it simply by denying it. And, of course, in his mind if he was convicted of the crime—he could just commit suicide. “ And I will take two or three of those sombitches with me too.” This was further proof of his naiveté and immaturity. When questioned by Judy about this inevitability, about what would he do then, he said flatly, staring at the floor,” You don’t want to know.” Add to this situation the apparent fact that his only “friends” were likewise unemployed drunken slackers, ex-convicts and white supremacis! ts, and a very specific world of the film was depicted. But considering everything, I still found that this film was leagues away from the rehearsed and edited “Reality TV” we have been bombarded with recently. The people comprising the cast of this film looked right into the camera lens, and they were stone cold “real”.

A fiction writer would have had to labor hard at setting up a plot that could contain so many conflicting ingredients and counterpoints. If Stevie had been a fictional character, a young Robert Duvall, or Billy Bob Thornton would have played him masterfully. He was a walking character study. His back-story was amazing. He was the consummate born loser, a drunk, overwhelmingly selfish, a bully, a coward, a victim, and a braggart—who would cap his sad history with an incidence of child molestation. Stevie’s “crime” catapulted the film into a downward spiral, dead-stick, right into the ground. It could go nowhere else.

The critic, David Poland, wrote,” I was disappointed. I wanted there to be a “lift” at the end—like in HOOP DREAMS.” But Roger Ebert pointed out,” This documentary is more powerful and courageous for showing the truth—for letting the film end its own way. A satisfying ending would have been a lie.” David Guthman, a San Francisco film critic did not like the film much. He wrote,” HOOP DREAMS let the narrative of its characters unfold in its own terms. The director avoided becoming part of the story [although I recall James appearing in front of the camera], appearing in the film, or endeavoring to influence the outcome. But in STEVIE, James thinks that he has been appointed to “straighten things out.” He constantly lectures Stevie, and inserts himself into a complex and unhea! lthy family situation, and constantly offers his advice—with the cameras rolling.”

Another critic wrote,” This is an overrated documentary. Despite its good reviews at Sundance (2002), this lost-cause film gives liberal guilt a bad name. James constantly parades Stevie around—hoping he will act out on camera. He portrays the family as a bunch of Hicks, rednecks, and losers—with Stevie as the main attraction. I doubt that Stevie ever fully understood what James was doing.”

James did explore the motif of society’s failure to assist Stephen. The premise, often used elsewhere, was that Stevie did not fail society—it failed him. We were shown that Stephen was literally ground up, pounded to pulp, violated, kicked in the face, beaten, abused, held back at every turn. He was denied an education and a vocation. Where was the love? As Stevie’s rap sheet lengthened, as his misdemeanors became felonies, as he moved through the justice system, through the court-appointed counseling sessions and lame attempts at rehabilitation—where was that one caring influential person who could manage an objective overview of these myriad events, who might have intervened, who might have made sure that he was carefully placed with foster parents who would care about him, who would slowly peel off that hard shell ! of protection Stevie wore and might have replaced it with compassion, understanding, and affection—instead of rape, abuse, and the cashing of their state checks?

Well—that “person” or persons never materialized. There was that one couple that cared about him, and was making headway with him—but they had to move out of state, and they, like Steve James, had to abandon him. Maybe that “person” was someone in the audience, viewing the film, which might be so touched by the film’s message that they would reach out to save some other troubled youth. Yes, I know--what a wonderful Pollyanna projection.

But it is flat too late for Stephen Fielding. It has already been two years since he was sentenced, and placed in the penitentiary. I doubt that he is still alive. He has probably been devoured by the demons of his own making, and by the denizens of darkness that he had to lie down with. If Stevie is alive; I don’t want to know what he has had to do to remain breathing. It reminds me of that scene in THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT (2004), where the tough cons were pressuring the young new meat, Ashton Kutcher. One of them leaned forward and whispered in Ashton’s ear, “ Shit on my dick, or blood on my blade—you choose, bitch!”

Roger Ebert wrote further,” Most of us have happy families, but all around us are others, nursing deep hurts and guilt and secrets—punished as children because they could not fight back.” He made a bold and relevant reference to a poem by the controversial poet, Philip Larkin. He could not, in the Chicago Sun-Times, quote much of it, but he recommended that we look it up. I did, and following is the poem:

T H I S B E T H E V E R S E

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy stern,
And half at one another’s throat.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like the coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

There was very little sentimentality in this film. It was not romanticized, or manipulated; nor was it reduced to the scum-level of those many guests on Jerry Springer. It was like we were passengers on a runaway train, and as it careened dangerously along, all we could do was white-knuckle the back of the seat in front of us, feeling it rolling thunderously toward the end of the line. It had to crash. It finally did. But we, sitting in the audience, were safe. We survived. I doubt that Stephen Fielding did.

I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars.
Glenn Buttkus (2005)