All Iverson

No Crossover:  The Trial of Allen Iverson
Director:  Steve James
Genre:  Documentary, Sports
ESPN Films (30 for 30 Series)

Premise:  Acclaimed Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, Life Itself) contributes to ESPN’s 30 for 30 Series with an entry detailing NBA star Allen Iverson’s alleged involvement in a 1993 racially instigated brawl, for which Iverson, who was 17 at the time, was charged as an adult and found guilty on felony charges.

Allen Iverson and Steve James both grew up in the town of Hampton, Virginia, the oldest continual English-speaking settlement in North America.  Hampton is also where the first ships carrying African slaves ported in America.  In the hotel in which James stayed during filming, a local tourist pamphlet sort of touches on this historical relevance, proclaiming Hampton to be “ where the first Africans to arrive in the colonies disembarked.”  In neighboring communities, Confederate flags are displayed proudly on numerous front porches.  The issue of race is an unavoidable element in nearly any consideration of the community of Hampton, either in historical or contemporary terms.  And it is impossible to view the Allen Iverson incident and trial without acknowledging the influence of race.

In this sense, it might be more accurate to describe No Crossover not as a “hidden gem” but as more of a “polished gem,” made even more significant and interesting by the recent events of Ferguson, Missouri.  There are some distinctive differences at play here; namely, the young black suspect in the Hampton case is not only still alive, but now made wealthy and legendary by his talents.  Another important separator:  with the Iverson trial, there is no debating the influence of race within the initial incident.  The grainy home video of the Iverson incident catches one of the black participants shouting “Bring your white ass outside,” and many witness accounts state that the whole melee was instigated by one of the white participants using a racial slur in Iverson’s direction.  However, even with the differences, both Ferguson and the Iverson incident are clear illustrations of a few unavoidable truths:  1.) There is an unquestionable unevenness to the way legal structures in this country serve black and white citizens and 2.) There is an equally unquestionable reluctance amongst many citizens to talk about this unevenness head on.

Steve James has exhibited in his films an ambition to dissect and nakedly observe the sustained inequalities of our society and the influence of that inequality on real lives.  In the case of the legal proceedings of  teenager Allen Iverson, that illustration requires little more than a straightforward presentation of fact.  None of the white participants in the fight were charged with any crime (even though the white individual alleged to have started the fight was coming off of cocaine charges).  Iverson was easier to find and convict given his status as athletic superstar at nearby Bethel High School (a rival to Hampton High School). The decision was made to try Allen Iverson as an adult.  Iverson’s defense attorney, going against obvious legal logic, opted for a trial by judge rather than jury.  Iverson wasn’t charged with Assault or any other practical charge, but rather “Maiming by Mob.”  A statute once set up to protect black citizens now worked against him in that all that needed to be proven was Iverson’s presence within the fight space and nothing more. Iverson would initially be found guilty on all three felonies and given three separate five year sentences, with the possibility of the fifteen year total sentence being reduced to ten months.

James moves his investigatory focus beyond these facts and urges viewers to consider more than the injustice, but the impact of the injustice on the singular  recipient.  This film makes familiar what is known by fans who have followed Allen Iverson through his amazing NBA career. Even though Iverson was released early and his charges suspended and pardoned, he has carried this incident on his shoulders his whole life.  He has never been able to escape the cloud created by the incident and ensuing trial.  Worse yet, he has never really forgiven himself for something that maybe he shouldn’t have to.  Late in the film, James includes a segment of a recent interview in which a somber Allen Iverson vocally accepts, in more or less terms, that he deserved everything that happened to him.  Iverson, a faithful man, even goes as far to say that God knew what He was doing when he placed Iverson in these circumstances.  That’s a chilling statement to hear from a man who was once labelled an adult felon for maybe participating in fight when he was seventeen years old.

In the middle of No Crossover, Steve James flatly vocalizes what everyone knows, whether we individually admit to it or not.  No white athlete in the same circumstance would have been treated the same way as Allen Iverson.  Something is forgotten when we attempt to qualify just how much racism is involved in incidents like those involving Mike Brown and Allen Iverson.  The implications make ripples.  The uneven treatment programmed within our ethical structure makes for instability within the structure of our culture’s moral psychology.  It must be a very confusing if not traumatic thing for young black teenagers of today to come to terms with the greater weight of these hypothetical offenses, for black kids in their teens to realize that their skin color dictates that participating in a fight could make them a lifelong felon. Right now, a not insignificant portion of America is  using singular cigar theft and marijuana consumption as justification for a street execution that is, at best, questionable in detail.  Black teenagers are watching this happen.  Moreover, black teenagers are watching the executing officer receive half a million dollars in donations even though he currently has no need for legal counsel.  Regardless of what happened in the encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson, that bounty is being broadcast (along with comments that span from troublesome to full-on racist)  to innocent black teenagers in America.  Among other things, James’ quiet sports documentary offers an imperative text on the cultural ramifications of this imbedded message.

And yet there’s a portion of our country, even larger than the collective racists, that wants to assert that these incidents don’t require further consideration, people who not only deny the need to talk about the relationship between the event(s) and race/racism, but who attempt to prohibit the conversation from happening in other circles.    By the end of No Crossover, James shows a sort of micro-culture of avoidance in the residents of Hampton, in the participants on both sides of the Iverson trial, and in the witnesses who took the stand both for and against Iverson.  No one wants to talk about the case, let alone the residual influence of racism on their community.  And so it is in the current moment of America.  No Crossover attempts to inspire the conversation that needs to unfold in Hampton.  Unexpectedly, three years after its release, it also presents our country’s need to have the exact same conversation.