This is your brain on football

Steve James (’77) in the promo for Head Games

What comes to mind when you think football? The thrill of watching your team score? Screaming crowds? Ridiculous pass returns? Spectacular touchdowns? Brutal tackles?

How about traumatic encephalopathy? No? Well, maybe you should. Steve James would like you to consider it.

Documentary filmmaker and JMU alumnus Steve James (’77) recently released a new documentary, Head Games, in which he explores the impact of traumatic encephalopathy — concussive head trauma — in sports. To often, this is the brain on football, especially for the players from PeeWee leagues to the NFL.

The subject of head trauma, explored in the film partially through the lives of those injured by repeated concussions, is a subject long ignored but now is making its way into our national conversation. Given our sports-obsessed culture, it’s a topic that needs to be discussed. Head Games is providing a platform.

Recently interviewed by Bill Littlefield for NPR’s weekend feature, Only a game, James said: “This film will help us all understand a bit more out in the real world what’s at stake, what we know, what we don’t know. (It will) help parents make informed decisions.”

The subject of concussions and head trauma is controversial. It stirs emotions. The cause has supporters and detractors because it strikes at the very heart of competitive contact sports. Head Games looks at what can happen when the brain is traumatized. It is informative, sometimes frightening, but like all good documentary films, it makes you think.

James had done it before. For his earlier films, James has won the Director’s Guild of America award, a Peabody, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism award, and an Oscar nod for Hoop Dreams — not to mention the  Ronald E. Carrier Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award. From the JMU Alumni Associaion website:

“His breakthrough documentary Hoop Dreams (1994) won nearly every major critical award and brought James the MTV Movie Award for “Best New Filmmaker.” For his next documentary titled Stevie (2002), James retuned to Southern Illinois to reconnect with a boy he mentored 10 years earlier as a “Big Brother.” The film won festival awards at Sundance, Amsterdam, Yamagata and Philadelphia and also was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

Last year, he released The Interrupters, a documentary about Chicago gangs.

Steve James uses his art, filmmaking, for positive change. Head Games is meant to make people think, change minds, and perhaps save lives. I can’t help but think about what James Madison might have said about Steve’s important work: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.” Steve James offers knowledge and understanding.

Perhaps wise decisions about brains and how we treat them will be the result.

You can listen to the full NPR interview with Steve James at NPR’s website:
You can also learn much more about Head Games, including theatrical and non-theatrical releases for schools, clubs and healthcare providers, and see the trailer at the film’s website:



Documenting murder and mayhem

“When a frail-looking child with startled eyes breaks down crying, her tiny hands covering her tiny face as she talks about a neighborhood shooting, it’s hard not to gather her up in your arms,” wrote New York Times movie reviewer Manohla Dargis about the new film The Interrupters.

The newly-released documentary film by Steve James (’77) follows a group of former Chicago gang members returning to the city’s tormented neighborhoods with one mission in mind: to “interrupt” the cycle of violence that plagues the city with their special blend of wisdom and credibility.

Steve, who also produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Hoop Dreams, collaborated with journalist Alex Kotlowitz to tell the story through the experiences of three of the “violence interrupters.”

Working though an organization called CeaseFire, the interrupters get right in the middle of volatile situations to defuse them — to interrupt them. It is not an easy or safe job. It requires persuasion, finesse and courage to use their credibility as former gang members to funnel potential violence into more productive reactions.

The interrupters are saving lives and changing the culture of violence one crisis at a time. Steve told NPR in an interview this week: “What we wanted to do, in some ways was to refocus some attention on the issue….”

Focus they have. Their film premiered in New York late last month to very positive reviews.

Manohla Dargis also wrote that while some documentaries exploit their subjects, The Interrupters “rises above the usual do-gooder cant by giving the interrupters — and the people they work among and periodically come close to dying for — the time to share their stories about life in the trenches. Mr. James has put a face to a raging epidemic and an unforgivable American tragedy.

You can listen to the full NPR interview with Steve James at:

To read the full New York Times review, visit:

And you can also read Alex Kotlowitz’ original New York Times story that inspired the film:

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