Steve James, Stephen Fielding, Tonya Gregory, Bernice Hagler, Verna Hagler, Brenda Hickam, Doug Hickam, Judy James
Stranger Than Fiction: 19 Jul 2010
Editor’s note: The screening of ‘Stevie’ on 19 July at Stranger Than Fiction will be followed by a Q&A with the director and initiates something of a Steve James festival, including a master class at Maysles Cinema that begins 28 July, as well as the theatrical opening of ‘The Interrupters’ on 29 July.
“What is all of this for, anyway?” Asked this pertinent question, filmmaker Steve James begins to explain. “I thought it would be good to make this film about Stevie and to try to understand who he is and what he had become,” he tells Stevie Fielding’s aunt, Wendy. She remains skeptical. Stevie’s been accused of molesting her eight-year-old daughter. “I’m the wrong person for you to talk to,” she’s already told James. He’s convinced otherwise, and as his camera keeps Wendy and then her sister, Stevie’s mother Bernie, in frame, James keeps talking. “This film will be an honest film, it’s not just an apology for Steven. I’m not here to just grill Bernice…” And then, his voiceover observes, “I proceeded to do just that.”
That is, the interviewer James asks questions he says, at the time, “I need to ask,” about her about her own childhood—the abuses Bernice and Wendy suffered at the hands of their alcoholic father in what Wendy calls “back hills of West Virginia”—as well as the hardships visited on Stevie, the son she gave up to the foster care system and his step-grandmother, Verna. But at the same time, it’s the narrator James who makes this scene so striking in Stevie, exposing his film as part of a process, as well as drawing attention to the effects of the filmmaking on its subjects, and film’s—any film’s—limited capacity to find order in chaos.
Stevie’s chaos is Stevie‘s most obvious focus, the pain he’s feeling and inflicting, the turmoil of his family, past and present. As James arrives in Pomona, Illinois at film’s start (in 1995), Stevie is literally on crutches, having dropped a tractor tire on his leg. He’s hesitant in greeting James, his former Big Brother, who left the area a decade before—when Stevie was 11—in order to pursue his filmmaking career in Chicago. Now returned, with a camera crew, a means to reincorporate Stevie into his own present life, James recalls what happened then. “When I left,” James tells you, “I felt a sense of relief that I didn’t have to go back for those weekly visits,” but h also felt some sense of guilt over not keeping in touch. Encouraged to take on the mentoring by his girlfriend Judy (now his wife and a counselor who works with sex offenders), James looks back on his frustration at the time, remembering that Stevie “was just a lot harder than I ever expected, he always seemed like an accident waiting to happen.”
His eyeglasses huge and thick, Stevie sits on the porch and explains to James how he came by his tattoos as his half-sister Brenda observes from the doorway. While Stevie describes his recent history—a brief and tumultuous marriage to a woman 15 years his senior, several arrests—James’ movie shows a series of mug shots, flipping over one another just as snapshots of the two Steves had done earlier. The effect is to connect Stevie’s selves, the hectic child and the aggressive young man (“I got a temper,” he says, “But I can control it”), as well as to underscore his vulnerability. As his experiences follow on one another, he’s accumulating a history and a pattern, a set of expectations and reactions from which he won’t be able to recover.
James leaves this first scene, promising one more time to keep in touch, he’s in turmoil, one more time. “Now that we’ve reconnected, film or no film,” he says, “I feel like I’ve taken an irretrievable step back into his life.” That step is reaffirmed two years later, when James calls Stevie and learns of the molestation charges. Though his public defender is trying to get his “alleged confession” suppressed, the case looks bad, at least in part because everyone who knows Stevie knows he’s capable of the crime.
This knowledge weighs heavily on James’ interview subjects. Bernice is reluctant even to talk with him, and Brenda, herself a victim of Stevie’s inappropriate behavior when they were children, vividly articulates her confusion and grief. Verna reveals that he was raped while he was in foster care, that that despite her efforts to maintain a stable home for him, she was mostly unable (her husband, the only father figure Stevie knew, died when the boy was just 12). And Stevie’s learning-disabled fiancée Tonya sums up fairly eloquently: “I think I’m the only one who sees something there that no one else does,” she says, “I can’t really explain it, because it’s hard to explain.”
People who have known Stevie since he was young reiterate that he was a sweet, if troubled child. Buffeted from one bad place to another, he never seems to have had a chance. James talks with Stevie, advising him to take a plea deal, trying to work through his rage at his mother: “How do you ever move on,” he asks, “All I see you doing is hanging out in Pomona and raging about your mom.” It’s hard to say how effective such exchanges can be: in the film, they seem only to trouble Stevie, who insists no one can understand his feelings, that he can’t act according to someone else’s ideals or expectations. As the Steves go around and around, neither able to help the other, Judy James speaks to a broader question, seeing Stevie as a product of a system that can’t possibly give him what he needs, a family. “The system always fails in that sort of situation,” she says, “They can’t begin to do enough for a child like Stevie.”
While Stevie insists that he’ll never go to prison, that he couldn’t stand it, the camera follows him as he awaits trial (some two and a half years). He goes fishing with a neighbor (an ex-convict who assures him he can get him affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood inside), visits former foster parents (looking at photos of him as a boy, his foster mother Dorinda smiles, “Adorable, inquisitive, curious: that was you”), and he and Tonya travel to Chicago to see the Jameses and Tonya’s old high school classmate, Patricia. When Stevie steps out, Patricia presses Tonya on whether she believes he’s done what he’s accused of, then tells her own terrible story of abuse. Just as she concludes, “It’s something I have to deal with for the rest of my life,” even if the abuser “doesn’t know how much pain he caused me,” Stevie appears at the door. No one looks at him, and the camera pans past him back to the young women, as they focus, however awkwardly, on each other’s anguish.
Stevie is complicated like this, refusing to shape a judgment for you. It’s a hard film to watch, because it won’t sort out what you’re seeing. Still, it is punctuated by moments that seem to break open what’s at stake: Wendy is particularly eloquent, as she acknowledges her sister’s abuses and her nephew’s injuries, but must also help her daughter live with what he’s done to her. At one level, the horror is abject: “He had a hard-on,” she says, “How could a 26-year-old man have a hard on for an eight-year-old?” But at another, the horror is also pervasive. She laments that her sister and Verna took revenge on one another through their volatile relationships with Stevie: “If they’d all come together with that kid, he’d a been a whole different kid,” she observes, succinctly echoing Stevie’s official psych evaluations.
But again, the system isn’t designed to treat Stevie, only to punish him. As James repeatedly affirms, in his narration and to Stevie, his commitment to “be there” for his “little brother,” the distance between them seems to yawn wider and wider. Tonya, hopeful at last, suggests the film itself is “something good that came out of it.” Stevie doesn’t make a case for itself as such. Instead, it raises questions, considers unintended effects as well as good intentions. And it reveals the complex circulation of damage and anger, offenders and victims—who too often become offenders.