Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Confronting Bubba Chuck: No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson

“The Answer” always seemed like the incorrect nickname for Allen Iverson. “The Enigma” is more like it. Here is a basketball player who stands 6 feet tall in his Reeboks who made his career driving the lane and hurtling his body at giants, seemingly oblivious to his size disadvantage. Here is a guy who plays as if winning were the only option, even as he ignores that one of the options of winning is passing the ball to get help from one’s teammates. Here is a guy who hoops with his heart on his trademark protective sleeve, who has earned himself fans and foes alike with his emotional outbursts. In many ways, Iverson is the basketball equivalent of Mike Tyson: short (relatively speaking), fast, fearless, self-destructive, elusive yet forthcoming, menacing yet tender and, all the while, undeniably fascinating, love him or hate him. A rousing feature-length documentary could easily be made chronicling Iverson’s tumultuous NBA career, but in No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson we get something altogether more captivating – a glimpse of man before he was “The Answer,” before he was “A.I.” and before his body was covered in literal and metaphorical tattoos.

No Crossover is about a kid called Bubba Chuck. That was Allen Iverson’s nickname growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the place where his athletic career began and, amazingly, almost ended. A two-sport star at Bethel High School, Iverson won acclaim both on the basketball court and the football field, but his hopes for professional success were nearly undone at the local bowling alley. On Valentine’s Day in 1993, Iverson was at the epicenter of a brawl that pitted him and some his black friends against some white students from the “redneck” part of town. Exactly how the fight began remains unclear, but the first blow might very well have been the word “nigger” being uttered in Iverson’s direction. After that, fists flew. So did chairs. A white woman uninvolved in the fight was struck by one of the chairs and claimed it was Iverson who hit her. Meanwhile, some African-American eyewitnesses insisted that Iverson was ushered out of the building before the brawl escalated into utter mayhem, some of it captured on shaky, handheld videotape. Whatever the truth, Iverson, only 17 years old, was tried as an adult and convicted, along with three of his black friends, of “maiming by mob.” No whites were so much as charged. Seventeen years later the specifics of that Valentine’s Day are up for debate in Hampton. But even more controversial than the subject of Iverson’s actions is the subject of Iverson’s subsequent treatment and its effect on the community at large.

Thus, No Crossover is both the story of Iverson and the story of Hampton, as perceived by the filmmaker: Steve James. James was raised in Hampton. His mother still lives in his childhood home. And though James was in Chicago shooting Hoop Dreams when Iverson was on trial, he kept aware of the proceedings through newspaper clippings mailed to him by his parents. Fittingly then, James approaches this subject like a man returning to his old hometown for a high school reunion – with a sense of intimate familiarity mixed with awkward foreignness. He recognizes the racial tension that he saw in his youth at the same time he shakes his head that so many Confederate flags still fly from Hampton porches. ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series has had personal films like this before, most notably Barry Levinson’s The Band That Wouldn’t Die and Mike Tollin’s Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?, but this is the first “30 for 30” film that’s as autobiographical as it is biographical. James wrestles with his own childhood memories of whites and blacks sitting on opposite sides of the school gymnasium by choice, of whites saying “nigger” while he sat silently and of black teammates that he never took the time to know. He does this not out of any stereotypical “white guilt,” it seems to me, but out of inward curiosity. In No Crossover, James is trying to understand his connection, if any, to the trial of Allen Iverson.

As a result of this approach, James is a key figure in this 80-minute film, but he never hogs the spotlight. The vast majority of the film is spent on Iverson – on his fatherless youth that had him buying drugs for his mother; on his early athletic career in which he was no easier to coach than he would be as a pro; on the trial and conviction in which Iverson first suffered because of his public identity and then was saved by it, earning release from a 15-year sentence after just a few months in prison. James juggles his material effortlessly, blending talking-head interviews with archival footage, calmly stating the known facts of the case and then treating us to a montage of wild conspiracy theories related to Iverson’s arrest. Iverson refused to be interviewed for this picture, but amazingly enough his presence isn’t missed at all. This movie is about Bubba Chuck, after all, and James finds plenty of old interviews of Iverson that accurately reflect both the man and the time. The film’s most stunning footage might be an old home movie of Iverson’s one-man high school graduation – a ceremony that happened only because of a white woman’s determination to tutor Iverson to his degree after his conviction. Begrudgingly wearing a cap and gown in front of family and a few friends, Iverson grins ear to ear, clearly relieved and proud of himself and basking in the love of those around him – an environment that one senses he didn’t get to experience much growing up. It’s a touching scene.

James’ ability to humanize not just Iverson but the controversy around his trial is what makes No Crossover effective. So many years, all-star seasons, media controversies and, yes, arrests later, it’s easy to forget the Iverson of this film – the Iverson before The Answer, before the tattoos, before the cornrows – but Hampton clearly hasn’t forgotten Bubba Chuck. In Iverson’s old hometown his old nickname lives on, as does the hurt caused by his trial. Time and again in No Crossover, James looks to uncover these not-so-long-buried emotions only to encounter hard ground and stone walls. For each interviewee who opens up to James there is another potential subject who holds back, hesitant to say too much, wary of bringing the issue back to life. This will undoubtedly frustrate viewers looking for No Crossover to “crack the case,” or some such thing. But the silence is remarkably telling. And, besides, it’s fitting, too. Allen Iverson has always inspired more questions than answers.

No Crossover premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.


TC said...

I particularly enjoyed the "conspiracy theory" section of the film. I was almost expecting someone to claim that a chair was thrown from a grassy knoll.

Marilyn said...

Nice review. James handles community/family better than any documentarian I can think of. The reluctance of people to talk to him shows what a fragile equilibrium the black and white communities of The Peninsula have. I'm sure none of them was interested in being shown up for the divided community they really are.

Jason Bellamy said...

TC: "I was almost expecting someone to claim that a chair was thrown from a grassy knoll." Great line. Yes, it really does feel like that. The editing in that scene is terrific. I love how James describes the conspiracy theory straightforwardly only to cut to a talking-head reacting as if it's the most absurd thing he/she has ever heard.

Marilyn: Thank you. Yeah, I've been itching to write a follow-up piece with a few observations on Hoop Dreams that related to your observation. I just need to find the time.

I'm glad James says that he doesn't blame Iverson for not talking. Indeed, what does he have to gain? It's behind him. It's over. For many of the other participants -- including the people who just lived on the edges of it -- it's the same thing. Going back might only kick up a shit storm. On that note, I'm also glad that James never gives the film a sense that he's saying This Is The Way It Happened. He puts out all the pieces, and there are some things we can be pretty sure about. But this is one of those times that the truth was lost even before it was found, if you know what I mean.

James Yates said...

I haven't seen the film yet, but your description of Iverson as an 'enigma' is very, very accurate.

My two lasting memories of Iverson: his rookie season crossover on Michael Jordan, and how I was moved to tears myself during his press conference after resigning with the 76ers. He's not perfect, far from it, but I really think he's misunderstood or misportrayed.

Clarence Ewing said...

I'm a couple of years older than Iverson, but I can relate to the kind of racial bull*** he experienced. I remember white kids (through intentions ranging from contempt to outright hostility) freely using the word "nigger" around me, even asking my permission if it was okay to tell a great nigger joke they heard somewhere.

This was a time when the idea that black and white people had the same rights and privileges under the law was more or less settled, but a lot of (mostly white) people were still getting used to the idea of living, working and going to school side by side with Negroes.

This era (circa 1980 to 2000) and the evolution in race relations that happened in it would make a great documentary subject.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jamie: I was moved both by his press conference with the Sixers and the moment captured in this documentary when he responds to praise from the recipient of one of his scholarships. He's so naked with his emotions sometimes. And yet he can be closed off, too. An enigma to the end.

Clarence: That would make for a good documentary. And yet I wonder if, still, we have enough distance on that era to do it right.

There's a moment in the documentary when a reporter talks about a column he wrote related to the Iverson case in which he led off with several abusive phrases about whites -- the worst of which was probably "redneck," the most comical of which was probably "low jumping," or something like that. His point was that those words are meaningless. Thus I suppose his conclusion is that Iverson was wrong to beat someone over the word "nigger."

Well, he might have some point in the sense that the chair-throwing violence that broke out that night seemed excessive, even if the fight had started with a fist to Iverson's jaw. But it stunned me that the (white) columnist would think that "nigger" and "redneck" were somehow equal words, as if both whites and blacks in this country had been equally mistreated, abused, etc. As if whites had been strung up in trees for being rednecks. Good grief. Again, the extremity of the violence is regrettable, but count me as one who considers the word "nigger" just as violent as a punch in the face when uttered with any kind of contempt. (I'm not a fan of the word the way Quentin Tarantino characters use it either, but that's a somewhat different issue.)

Anonymous said...

I grew up during the same time in the same city and I don't remember seeing confederate flags hanging every where. I do remember there was no deal with race every used to hang out together. How ever one word is no reason to start a fight weather it be "redneck" or "nigger."