There’s a sequence in this documentary where the director, Steve James, follows the subject of his film, Stevie Fielding, and his fiancée as they go club hopping in Chicago. Stevie drinks too much and things get out of hand. He ends up sitting on a sidewalk outside of a club. As the director is urging him to stand up, his narrating voice tells us that he has qualms about this sequence, about letting Stevie drink that much alcohol.
Well, why then did he include the sequence? My guess is to present the moral dilemma that faces every documentary filmmaker. At what point are you no longer telling a story about people that needs to be told? At what point are you just using them?
Director James and Stevie didn’t know each other all that well, but they did have a history. In the mid-eighties, Steve James, then a university student, became a Big Brother to the troubled boy. After graduating, he lost contact with Stevie. Ten years later, James decided to pay Stevie a visit in his Illinois home and found a big, bearded guy with thick glasses and tattoos, a pretty strange fellow who’s living with his grandmother and dating a slightly retarded girl. Stevie was 26 but he didn’t act like it; he was no more mature than a 12-year-old. The director also found out that Stevie had been in trouble with the law on several occasions. Two years later, James takes a phone call and is shocked to learn that Stevie has been arrested again, now charged with sexually abusing his 8-year-old cousin.
The director realizes that this tragic story has the potential to become a gripping documentary, and starts talking with those people who are close to Stevie. The girlfriend, Tonya, has her doubts about Stevie’s innocence, but ultimately decides to stand by him. The aunt, whose little girl Stevie has turned into a victim of sexual abuse, is of course furious with her nephew, but loves her sister too much to disown that part of the family. The estranged mother, Bernice, eventually reconnects with her son and comforts him during the trial. We also get to see what happens to Stevie’s sister, Brenda, who’s desperately trying to have a baby despite her medical condition that makes a pregnancy very unlikely.
Not to be frowned upon
These are poor, rural people. They don’t have much of an education, they are not very eloquent. These are the kind of people who are frequent guests on The Jerry Springer Show. But the director is eager to show the world that they should not be ignored or frowned upon. James makes an effort to connect the dots here, to provide an explanation for Stevie’s behavior. Bernice used to beat her son and then left him in the care of his paternal grandmother who taught him to hate his mother. At some point, he also lived in a few foster homes where he was abused in many ways, even sexually. The only exception was a friendly couple who treated him well; there’s quite a moving sequence where they meet again.
The director makes it very obvious how a childhood that brought Stevie some love and respect most likely would have prevented him from abusing that girl. It sounds like a cliché, like an excuse, but it’s a simple fact.
There are times when you have to wonder what makes the director put up with Stevie, who behaves like an immature, irresponsible, stupid kid. This is not a loveable person. But James is fascinated by this lout and his destiny, and eventually I realize, so am I. He knows how to tell this story. There’s always a degree of manipulation in the art of documentary filmmaking. One has to live with that, as long as the final result feels as genuine as Stevie.
Stevie 2003-U.S. 145 min. Color. Produced by Steve James, Gordon Quinn, Adam Singer. Directed by Steve James.
Last word: “My collaborators said, ‘You haven’t seen him in ten years, you should film yourself a little bit with him’. I was like ‘I’m not going to be in this.’ I never wanted to be in any of my films, but they said, ‘You don’t have to put it into the movie but you should just have it.’ I said ‘Okay, but it’s never going in the movie.’ I was very sure about that.” (James, Indiewire)