Steve James Director of "LIfe Itself" at AFI Docs

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What’s more patriotic than the movies? This July 4th, a film that celebrates our great American pastime and the man who helped popularize film appreciation for the average American is opening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and at select theaters nationwide.

When Hoop Dreams, documentarian Steve James’s debut film, burst onto the scenes in 1994, it won something more than that year’s slate of critic awards. It won the praise of Roger Ebert, who called it “the greatest American documentary.”

Twenty years later, and a year after the passing of Ebert whom most of us would likewise call the greatest American film critic, James has released Life Itself, a companion film to the memoir Ebert penned in 2011.  The film is full of vivid interviews from Ebert’s loved ones, his peers, and the filmmakers who often found themselves the target of his acerbic wit and enthused praise. Most remarkably, it’s also full of Ebert himself, as the filmmaking process got underway in the year before his cancer finally claimed his life. Thus, the documentary salutes an innovator in film criticism while also presenting a man whose courage in the face of terminal illness inspired just as many people as his writing did. Scott Foundas of Variety hails Ebert’s legacy and this film as “a gleaming beacon to guide us through the moviegoing dark.”

In addition to Hoop Dreams and Life Itself, James’s documentary features and television series have garnered national attention multiple times, including the New Americans’ 2004 International Documentary Association Award for Best Limited Series Television, the War Tapes’ 2006 top prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the selection of 2010’s No Crossover: the Trial of Allen Iverson for the U.S. Department of State’s American Documentary Showcase. In 2013, James received his first Emmy for the Interrupters, which returned to the neighborhoods in which Hoop Dream was filmed. Hoop Dreams has also been added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, an honor that fulfills Ebert’s predictions for the film.

Life Itself was chosen for the closing night spotlight slot during the 2014 AFI Docs festival, at which time we spoke with James about his past with Ebert, how he hopes Ebert would have reviewed the film, and the contributions of executive producers Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian.

If our communal love for Ebert and the proclamations already declaring it “the film to beat” for a Best Documentary Academy Award aren’t enough to get you out to the Lincoln Center or a Cineplex closer to you this weekend, then perhaps the words of the multiple award-winning documentarian himself will do the trick.


James shares with us what it was like to receive that first glowing review and support from Ebert. He also reveals that the idea for the film came from executive producer Steve Zaillian and that fellow executive producer Marty Scorsese was instrumental in both the Indiegogo campaign and infusing heart into his candid interview in the film.


Watching Ebert’s friends and family talk about him on camera was a wonderful experience. James can only hope that Ebert would have loved the final cut of the film, and he kept that imagined review in the back of his mind while making it.


 James describes Ebert’s legacy as that of a man who revolutionized film criticism by bringing it to the masses. But his dignity in dealing with his cancer and losing his literal voice are just as important to remember.

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