The ills of this wounded Everyman may be beyond healing.
In the infomercial world of “reality” television, those arenas in which contestants operate in a life-size version of Barbie’s playhouse (all the mod-cons, the pool, the car, needing only the appropriate human being to complete the picture), American society and advertising seem to have completely merged. More distorting than patently false places like Peyton or Mayberry, these reality soundstages are purportedly classless worlds in which every consumer is equal to the other, in which all the verities of American life (economic disparity, racial tension, violence, to name only a few) are air-brushed out in favor of a consumerist utopia. Actual documentaries, which are at least free of product-placements and show an environment rather than a premeditated interior, have become an increasingly necessary barometer of something closer to the truth.
Many documentaries are made by the privileged about the underprivileged, the filmmakers positioned as observers rather than participants. Viewers have the advantage of distance, of feeling removed from the subjects; Stevie is one of the few films to undermine the comfort of this safe detachment.
While publicizing Hoop Dreams in 1995, director Steve James resumed contact with Stephen Dale Fielding, Stevie, to whom James had been an Advocate Big Brother during graduate school at Southern Illinois University. With Stevie’s permission, James began “an atonement,” according to his notes on the film; having lost touch with the troubled young man for more than ten years, he decided to make a film about the then 24-year old. He opens the film with an epigraph by William Faulkner: “The past is never dead — it’s not even past,” an apt motif for what has clearly remained an unsettling chapter in James’s life. James was given access to Stevie’s records, scholastic and criminal; his families, genetic and foster; and to Stevie’s psychiatric files. According to his notes, James saw this as a way to understand his Little Brother in a way he’d failed to during the time they were associated and after. By the time James could devote himself fully to the film in 1997, Stevie was in an Illinois county jail awaiting trial on child molestation charges to which he pleaded innocent.
Stevie’s particulars are like a story dreamt up by Charles Dickens and Gary Gilmore. He never knew his father, who was out of the picture by the time he was born. Stevie’s mother, Bernice, made no secret of not wanting him, severely beating him for the first few years of his life. She married another man when her son was a toddler, handing him off to her new mother-in-law, Verna — her neighbor — to raise. No love lost between Verna and Bernice, who was anyway soon preoccupied with her new baby, Brenda. During his teens, Stevie lived in a succession of foster homes. As an adult, Stevie counts on his step-grandmother, his half-sister and his fiancée, Tonya, for genuine affection. None of these women offer him unconditional love but he cobbles together enough from all three to compensate for the severe emotional deprivation of his childhood and youth.
James talks to all the members of the family and some of Stevie’s disturbing white supremacist friends, the emerging portrait one of a largely unsympathetic character, the sort of person rarely given attention except on sensationalist crime- or talk-shows. Stevie embodies stereotypes of the rural, white and poor: he is uneducated, unkempt and fixated on guns and motorcycles, the victim and the perpetrator of violence. Paradoxically, his inarticulate speech and inchoate thinking vividly express his frustration and anger: he has no skills with which to cope effectively with the inevitable set-backs of his life. Instead, his attitudes reflect a system that shunted him from one foster situation to the next, including time in harrowing psychiatric institutions. Given his painful experiences, Stevie’s Faulknerian crime feels almost fated.
Good intentions inform the behavior of nearly everyone who reaches out to Stevie. Scenes in which James and his social worker wife, Judy Roth, try to reason with Stevie are like watching speakers of two different languages: Stevie has no context for their advice. His dismal know-how strictly black or white, his capacity for subtlety non-existent. Despite their understanding of the situation and sympathy with him, James includes exchanges that show the frustration he and his wife feel with Stevie’s refusal to help himself by taking advantage of plea-bargaining. James makes himself admirably vulnerable, imbuing the film with an awareness of the limits of his help to Stevie and the use to which he’s putting his former Little Brother in making the film; Stevie as much about one Steve as the other.
James followed Stevie’s case for four and a half years and the film often feels just about that long, but not arbitrarily so: the overwhelming complexity of Stevie’s situation requires a certain amount of repetition and a great accretion of detail. Although Stevie’s uninterested mother, Bernice, makes overtures to connect with her son, her earlier abuses are easy to imagine. Animated as a cookie-jar, Bernice gives lip-service to her neglect, absolving herself with her present-day devotion to a Baptist church, even convincing Stevie to be born again there. This sequence much more about Bernice’s need to justify herself than any real help to Stevie; like most of the strategies he’s been offered, he has no framework for religion as a cure-all any more than he does for therapy and, ultimately, efforts to help him seem more about assuaging the helper than actually solving Stevie’s predicament.
There are few American families who don’t share at least some of Stevie’s problems. The film avoids the prurience inherent in shock shows by making the viewer recognize Stevie, slowly and inexorably, as a product of an educational system that offers no guidance; of a class system that demonizes poverty; of a health-care system centered on medication rather than prevention; and of a legal system geared to incarcerating rather than rehabilitating.
Stevie shows that the rest of us suffer, albeit less directly than Stevie himself, from this same system. In this demanding and sometimes off-putting film, Steve James focuses on problems both unglamorous and largely unsolvable but not uncommon: Stevie emerges as a double-portrait in inadequacy, that of the two Steves portrayed and our own.