Director/Screenwriter: Steve James
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As a person who lived through the melee of the 1994 O. J. Simpson murder trial, I knew I had never seen anything like it—particularly the way blacks and whites lined up on either side of the guilty/not guilty divide—and thought that certainly there never was or would be a trial like it again.
I was wrong.
Just a year before this trial of the century, a less sensational, but no less divisive trial took place in the historic community of Hampton, Virginia. The phenomenally gifted star of the Bethel High School basketball team and future NBA great Allen Iverson and three other boys (Michael Simmons, Samuel Wynn, and Melvin Stephens) were arrested for throwing punches and chairs in a Hampton bowling alley that injured three whites, including a pregnant woman. Stephens severed his trial from the other three defendants and ended up walking with a misdemeanor conviction. Simmons, Wynn, and Iverson took a bench trial presided over by a “hanging” judge and were convicted of three counts of “maiming by mob”—a felony crime put in place to allow lynch mobs to be prosecuted—and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The town of Hampton was instantly split in two. A concerted effort by a citizens group called S.W.I.S. (the initials of the four defendants) and the fortuitous ability of Virginia’s first black governor to grant clemency because he was retiring and unconcerned about facing voters the next year enabled the three boys to win their freedom after serving about four months.
Steve James, one of the world’s most gifted documentarians, hails from Hampton, and like everyone else on “The Peninsula” on which Hampton rests, was well aware of Allen Iverson. James’ father Bill, though an alumnus of Hampton High, was a huge fan of Iverson’s. After James moved to Chicago, his father used to send him clippings from the local papers about Iverson’s accomplishments on the gridiron and the basketball court—and of course, stories about the trial. When ESPN approached James to take part in its “30 for 30” documentary series, he chose to return to Hampton to try to make sense out of what happened there in 1993.
As a Hampton insider and a natural storyteller with complete command of the cinematic form, James gives viewers the lay of the land quickly and indelibly. We feast on footage of Iverson, just barely brushing past 6 feet tall, running like liquid mercury down the football field and hanging off hoop rims after authoritative slam dunk after slam dunk. We see him sink 30-foot jump shots and celebrate his touchdowns with fancy endzone moves. We also hear about his temper, his cockiness, his fatherless home, his drug-addicted mother, the neighborhood black men who stepped in to try to keep him on the straight and narrow. And we see a narrow footpath to the shore of Chesapeake Bay as James reminds us that Hampton, the oldest, continuous, English-speaking settlement in North America, also was one of the earliest centers for the slave trade. Thus, tidily, we are prepared for a discussion of race.
And, indeed, race may have caused the brawl at the bowling alley. Most of the witnesses and the defendants contend that some white bowlers had bandied about the “n” word to incite a fight. A fragment of video footage of the brawl was taken, and the chairs flying from black hands onto white bodies looks pretty savage. Iverson supposedly had been led out of the bowling alley, away from the fight, to protect his future as a top recruit for elite college athletic programs.
Jim Spencer, a Hampton Daily Press columnist and reporter in 1993, did not think Iverson was the kind of person to walk out on a fight. He ran a blunt opinion piece at the time that said Iverson and the others needed to be accountable for their actions, denying race had anything to do with the arrests. Nonetheless, no whites were arrested and considerations about the possible verbal incitements dismissed as a “sticks and stones” situation.
James had trouble getting people—including his own mother—to agree to be interviewed for the film. Iverson did not cooperate, but James skillfully blends interviews of him while he was in a minimum-security farm-prison and other archival footage, for example, holding one of his Crossover camps in Hampton (following criticism that he had avoided coming there), talking about his devoted white tutor who used to cry when he would show up at her home late for a lesson, and graduating from high school months after his classmates had already matriculated. It is through all his triumphs and trials that we get the complicated picture that is Allen Iverson.
James also talks to some of the S.W.I.S. members, who called the incident the most blatant example of racism they had ever seen in the Virginia judicial system. There is some intimation that prosecutor Colleen Killilea had political aspirations, and indeed, she is now a judge who refused to be interviewed. Regardless of whether one feels the boys deserved some kind of punishment for their part in the brawl, one has to conclude that 15-year sentences for first-time offenders who were not unequivocally tied to the crime (Killilea told Sports Illustrated at the time, “While we couldn’t link specific people to specific acts, each defendant was responsible for what occurred,” which put the maiming by mob charge into play) was a miscarriage of justice. James says that Iverson’s fame undoubtedly worked against him at trial, but for him in winning release. Amusingly, right after James shows a scene of jubilation about Iverson’s release, he cuts to Michael Simmons remembering his reaction with a laugh: “What about me?”
James’ skilled editing provides many such laughs and evenhandedly juxtaposes the outrage of black Peninsula residents with the law-and-order uprightness of its white population. He also makes it clear that black residents who had moved on up in the world were also against Iverson and his codefendents. James shoots scenes of the well-to-do blacks watering their lawns in fashionable neighborhoods, though the suggestion of one interviewee that they simply didn’t want to lose ground in the racial divide seems a little too simple. It was, as another interviewee put it, an issue of class more than race.
James went in search of his roots in such a way as to find out more about a community he only half knew. When asked about race relations today, one of the S.W.I.S. members said it’s a tiny bit better. A middle-aged black man says it’s like watching a duck. You see the duck glide smoothly on top of the water, but you never see its legs paddling furiously underneath. James ends this superb film with a group of geese moving across a pond in Hampton.