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For ‘Hoop Dreams’ director Steve James, reinventing an industry by defying it

An image from Steve James’s “America to Me” (Participant Media/Sundance Institute)

PARK CITY, Utah — Chicago moviemaker Steve James has always stayed ahead of the documentary-film industry.

Maybe too far ahead.

James brought a then-unheard-of narrative sensibility to his 1994 basketball documentary “Hoop Dreams.” He embedded dangerously in the lives of anti-gang activists in his 2011 investigation “The Interrupters.” And he turned a documentary about a film critic into a meditation on religion, sex, parenthood and cinema with his 2014 Roger Ebert examination “Life, Itself.”

For all those efforts, a mainstream establishment has written him off. James didn’t earn an Oscar nomination for any of these films. Financiers didn’t even want to fund “Hoop Dreams,” writing it off as too slick.

“I think ‘ahead of my time’ is too strong,” James said wryly in an interview at the Sundance Film Festival this week. “Trying to take a different approach?”

Whatever one calls it, James is back at it again. The Chicago native, 63, has returned to Sundance to unveil to audiences and distributors his latest industry flamethrow: “America To Me,” a sprawling 10-part series set in a diverse public school in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Oak Park. This time he’s arrived in a climate far more hospitable both to documentary and new variations on the form.

Documentary has emerged as a popular form in the past few years, spurred by the ease of shooting footage with small digital cameras and the explosion of platforms to showcase it. With companies like Netflix investing heavily — the streaming service at last year’s Sundance spent as much as $5 million for one documentary, “Icarus,” while nearly a half-dozen documentary sales have happened at this year’s festival — there is more money in nonfiction film than ever.

Docuseries in particular have been a hot commodity.  Two years ago, Netflix had a major subscriber hit with “The Making of a Murderer,” about an unsolved case in rural Wisconsin, which followed shortly after HBO’s six-part “The Jinx,” about the alleged murders perpetrated by the real-estate scion Robert Durst. And ESPN’s eight hour-long “O.J.: Made In America” was one of the cultural events of the year, winning the Oscar for best documentary last February.

But James is again zigging when everyone  is zagging. Rather than hang his docuseries on a crime, as those series have done, he is staying away from titillation to focus on ordinary middle-class teenagers and their parents and educators.

“It’s not a story about sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, or about violence,” James said. Then with deadpan comic timing, he added, “That’s probably what will doom us in the marketplace.”

“America to Me” offered long odds. To make the series, James had to bring aboard financiers that would allow him to shoot and edit for more than a year, often with large crews canvassing the 3,200 students.

He pitched Participant Media, the issue-oriented production company that serves as one of Hollywood’s consciences as the backer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Spotlight” and others.  The company had never made a docuseries before. But executives liked James’s devotion to an issue without overt partisanship and signed on to finance and produce, along with James’s Chicago nonprofit collective Kartemquin Films. (Budget figures have not been disclosed.)

Participant executives learned quickly of James’s unconventionality.

“I think Steve originally thought of this as a feature. Then it moved to four hours, then to six, then to eight, then to 10,” laughed Diane Weyermann, Participant’s president of documentary film and television.

“One reason we haven’t seem films like this in the past is people tend to gravitate to extreme examples of how we’re failing minorities,” said James. Oak Park and River Forest High School, the school James featured, “gets at something else — a deep-seated racism that doesn’t necessarily manifest as overt racism.”

The school doesn’t exude overt racism. And it isn’t riddled with physical confrontations. If anything, it seems like a grand success — a school of impeccably high standards with a population split almost 50-50 between white students and minorities.

Yet as James and his segment directors tracked the children’s lives, they found that discrimination abounded.

Making his point via character hurdles more than grandstanding pronouncements, James takes viewers from wrestling practice to a spoken-word poetry club, from the cheerleading squad to a remedial reading class, to show how African Americans are treated in subtly different ways than white students. That contributes to the  achievement gap at the very school where those inequities were supposed to have been erased.

“One of the prime reasons I wanted to do this series was that [Oak Park] is an extremely liberal and diverse community, one that takes enormous pride in its history,” said James. “Yet it’s still failing its black students.”

Though it would seem the show’s main audience might be people skeptical about its message, James says he actually wants to aim it at progressives who agree there’s a problem but aren’t doing enough.

“It’s a little too facile in liberal America — it’s like checking boxes. ‘I saw that movie so I get it.’ ‘I joined a movement — Me Too, Black Lives Matter — and I get it,'” James said. “What I want to do with this series is shake people out of that comfort zone.”

Issues of inequality have long been a James hallmark. He manifestly set up “Hoop Dreams” as a contrast between two students of different backgrounds. The themes run through more recent work, too, such as his 2017 film “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” about a family-owned bank in New York’s Chinatown that was prosecuted after the financial crisis in ways many major financial institutions were not.

“Abacus” has offered him yet one more shot at an Oscar as it landed on the Oscar shortlist of 15 documentaries from which the five  nominees are chosen. It’s been a long shot, though, say forecasters, thanks to the film’s lack of topicality and modest commercial release and awards campaign.

“We’re kind of a dark horse. But that’s okay. I’m thrilled to be on the short list,” said James, who tries to be diplomatic about his lifetime Oscar snubbing even as he’s clearly bothered by his lifetime Oscar snubbing. “I know that sounds like what everybody says but I really believe it in this case.”

His “America to Me” gamble has paid off so far. The day of its premiere at Sundance, Participant announced that cable-network Starz had bought rights to the project.

The reported price: $5 million.

The Netflix bubble, it turns out, drives up prices across the board. Starz had been looking to beef up its documentary content, with a new documentary initiative launched last summer that includes a weekly doc series, and a longform program about race and education fit the bill. It was willing to pay for the privilege. Starz will begin airing the show on an unspecified date later this year, hoping to attract a wide audience.

But a different kind of acceptance may be, for once, at hand for James.

On Tuesday, a day after “America to Me” premiered at Sundance, the Oscars revealed their documentary nominations.

Sitting right at the top of the list: “Abacus.”