Gang Past Rears Up For Sundance 'Little Birds' Director Elgin James, Who'll Spend Year In Jail

Elgin James, who wrote and directed the 2011 Sundance Film Festival entry Little Birds and just got his first major studio writing job, was yesterday sentenced to spend a year in jail by a federal judge in Chicago. The sentence stems from a 2005 attempt to extort $5000 from a man. A life he put behind him has come back to haunt James, whose early success came after he ended a long cycle of violence. That cycle defined his early life, from when he was on the receiving end of beatings as a child to when he formed a rough street gang dedicated to thumping rival neo-Nazi gangs and robbing drug dealers. According to the Chicago Tribune, James is eligible for release in 10 months.

James’ Sundance film, about two 15-year-old girls from Salton Sea who dangerously follow three boys to the Los Angeles streets, hasn’t been acquired but is expected to find a distributor. That film got him representation at WME and his first major studio job writing Low Riders, an 8 Mile-style drama about a parolee who tries to put his past behind him as he immerses in the low rider car sub-culture. James is scripting the film for Ricardo de Montreuil to direct for Universal Pictures and Imagine. James will hang onto that job, and write while incarcerated.

I had lunch with James hours before his movie premiered in Park City in January, expecting to write his unlikely story when Little Birds was acquired for distribution. I will use our interview here. Considering what James has survived to get this far, I don’t think a year in jail can, or should, stop his progress toward a film career. James struck me as perhaps the most unusual first-time filmmaker I’ve ever met at Sundance. While most of them make gritty films based on scenarios and rough characters they only imagine, James lived in the world that informed his film until he swore off violence for pacifism. He’s embraced nonviolence to the point where he said he never raises his voice on set, and studied the way that filmmakers like John Ford and Samuel Fuller depicted violence after they returned from WWII. Violence in James’ film is done without music and only from the victim’s POV so the acts are deplorable and not glamorized. He was honest about his own violent past as leader of Friends Stand United, a group formed to stand up to the hard-core racist gangs that preyed on street kids like him in Boston. The gang drew national press attention for its Robin Hood-like penchant for robbing bad guys and giving half the proceeds to charity. James directed a video documentary on the gang in 2004.

James got into the gang culture as a way to hit back after taking blows his whole life. The prison stretch he is bracing for isn’t the only time he paid a high price. Stuck in juvenile hall after his first gang flirtation, he was persuaded by his mother to stop and go to college. “I came back home, and got jumped for some other violence I’d been involved in from before, and I experienced brain damage,” he told me. Forget going back to school, James had to relearn how to speak and regain his motor skills. He ended up back on the Boston streets, forming FSU with other misfits. “We formed to fight against the neo-Nazi skinheads that were cropping up all over,” he said. “We were a bunch of kids, Latino, Jewish, black, and the group was our protection.”

The gang’s Robin Hood hook had Hollywood appeal, and James would eventually get his first movie break making a life-rights deal for a movie that had Nick Cassavetes directing and Justin Timberlake playing James. He said he called off the picture because James felt there was no way to tell his story without glamorizing a chapter of his life that made him ashamed.

“It’s untruthful to make what we were doing into some positive vigilante thing,” James told me. “We were doing bad stuff, and I rationalized it by giving part of the money to charity. Violence is dehumanizing. I’d been dehumanized myself until I started kicking back, and now I was doing it.” James got a reality check when he spent weeks with his dying mother, and was embarrassed by the person she saw. “I was this 30-year-old loser in a street gang,” he said. “I never gave my mom anything to be proud of, and she was telling me it was never too late for a second chance. I spent those last weeks with her plotting my escape.”

James, who since childhood haunted movie houses and libraries as a way to get off the streets — his arms are adorned with tattooed passages from John Steinbeck and Arthur Rimbaud — pinned his hopes on Hollywood and screenwriting. He drove cross-country with his girlfriend (now his wife) and made that life story movie deal. “People knew my story, and though I hadn’t written anything myself, suddenly there were writers and a director and I thought this was my way in,” he said. “I’d be late to meetings because I had no money for the valet and had to find street parking, but I’d get there and they were talking extraordinary numbers. I’d get caught up in that. They started me as producer, and then they’d tell me I would be executive producer, which I thought was better even though it was a bump down. But I wasn’t an artist, I was the dumb gang guy.”

So James withdrew and instead focused on tapping his experience in a fictional script. “The one great gift my father gave me was a love of mid-century short story writers, and I had their template for short, muscular sentences that got right to the point,” he said. James found a champion for his Little Birds script in Half Nelson producer Jamie Patricof, who helped get him accepted into the Sundance Labs. “I went to the labs the angry child I’d been my whole life,” he said. “They pushed me to express myself in means that were not physical. And then I met Robert Redford, who told me I’d spent my whole life reacting against my father, which taught me to hit back and use my energy for negative things. But I never paid attention to a mother who’d lived a strong moral life. And he told me that giving gang money to charity was bullshit. These labs didn’t just teach me to be a filmmaker, they taught me to be a man. There was no reason for them to believe in me, on paper, but they believed in me, and I want to do them right.”

James’ WME agents weren’t commenting on his latest setback, but I wasn’t surprised in the press account to see James take responsibility when he went before the judge. “The last few months have been a juxtaposition of the best and worst of my life,” James said in court. “Today I faced my day of reckoning. … I have accepted responsibility for my past, and I am now looking forward to continuing my film career.”

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