Steve James takes a personal approach to examining a racially charged incident in his hometown.
Score another win for vet filmmaker Steve James, who takes a personal approach to examining all aspects of a racially charged incident in his hometown of Hampton, Va., with “No Crossover: The Trail of Allen Iverson.” This riveting doc already has aired on ESPN, the sports network for which it was produced, but it continues to surface on the fest circuit, and likely will enjoy a long shelf-life on homevid — perhaps as a DVD stored on the same shelf as James’ other exemplary basketball docs, “Hoop Dreams” and “Stevie.”
“No Crossover” focuses on a notorious ruckus that occurred on Valentine’s Day 1993 in a Hampton bowling alley, when Iverson — then a high school student — allegedly joined African-American classmates in a brawl with white patrons. Fists were thrown, chairs were tossed — and Iverson wound up arrested along with three other black youths, and charged with “maiming by mob” (a relatively rare Virginia statute that had originally been instituted to discourage lynching). The subsequent trial — and conviction — all-too-predictably divided the community along racial lines.
James spends surprisingly little time theorizing how Iverson — who declined to be interviewed for the doc, and appears only in archival footage — may have been shaped or influenced by the 1993 episode. (Pic does hint, however, at a cause-and-effect connection while referencing Iverson’s personality traits and erratic behavior during his ongoing NBA career.) Instead, the documaker is much more interested in what the ’93 fracas may reveal about simmering resentments and possibly irreconcilable fractures that still lie not so far beneath the surface of any American community, even one supposedly as harmonious as Hampton has become.
Throughout “No Crossover,” James questions a wide variety of passive observers and active participants — everyone from Joyce Hobson, an African-American activist who rallied support for Iverson and his co-defendants, to Pat Minetti, a white former police chief in Hampton, to James’ own mom — while fashioning a meticulously balanced, “Rashomon”-type account of the ’93 incident and its aftermath.
Many black residents angrily voice concerns about racial profiling and nefarious motives, with a few claiming Iverson, then a promising high-school football player, was prosecuted only so that Hampton’s power elite could gain control over him (and his potentially huge NBA income). Some white Hamptonites counterargue that Iverson and his companions behaved thuggishly, and were defended only because they were black and, perhaps more important, star athletes.
The controversy, James pointedly notes in his low-key narration, did not end when Iverson was granted clemency four months into an unusually long prison sentence by Gov. Douglas Wilder shortly before the politico — not incidentally, an African-American — left office in 1994.
“No Crossover” has flashes of humor; ex-chief Minetti admits agreeing to an interview with James only because the latter’s mom nagged him into doing so. But the overall tone might best be described as grim melancholy. Final scenes suggest a bitter irony: Iverson may have been freed for the same reason he was imprisoned, because he was a black athlete in the wrong place at the right time.
Tech aspects are first-rate.