Entries tagged with “Steve James”.

Kartemquin Korner is a regular series spotlighting the efforts of Kartemquin Films, the best documentary producing collective this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. Much of this particular piece is excerpted from the large Kartemquin section in Hollywood On Lake Michigan, 2nd Edition.

At The Death House Door (2008)


Click on this picture to order At The Death House Door.

Although they are most known for the legendary film, Hoop Dreams (1994), which they directed and produced together with Frederick Marx, Steve James and Peter Gilbert also share co-producer and co-director duties on this brilliant collaboration. In addition, Gilbert handles director of photography duties and James is co-editor (with Aaron Wickenden). Wickenden and Zak Piper are co-producers and the executive producers are Gordon Quinn, Christine Lubrano, Debbie DeMontreux, Evan Shapiro, and Allison Bourke.

"At The Death House Door"

Gilbert (left) and James pose with their camera in the cemetery where many of the convicted men were buried. The sequence where Pickett walks through this graveyard pointing out those whom he ministered to is one of the film’s more powerful moments.

At The Death House Door tells the story of Carroll Pickett, a prison chaplain in Huntsville, Texas, who presided over ninety-five executions during a fifteen-year period. Having no one he could share his emotional burden with, Pickett made cassette-tape recordings of his thoughts and impressions of each individual execution, describing the entire day (which Pickett would spend with each condemned man from 6 am until they were killed at midnight) in vivid detail.


Carroll Pickett sits with some of the tapes he recorded during his time as minister to the condemned men. He had not listened to any of these tapes until the making of this film.

Several interconnected threads tie the film together: footage of Pickett recounting his life and experiences to the camera, shots of him listening to his tapes (none of which he had listened to since recording them), Pickett’s visit to the prison cemetery where all the condemned men were buried, interviews with his adult children, friends, and colleagues, and a birthday party for Pickett attended by his children. Also woven into the narrative are two Chicago Tribune reporters investigating a story about Carlos De Luna, an executed man who was almost undoubtedly innocent (a sentiment shared by Pickett at the time, which he reveals in a meeting with the two journalists), and the story of De Luna’s sister, who becomes inspired by the injustice foisted upon her brother to become an activist against the death penalty.


One of the series of Chicago Tribune stories filed by reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley which provided much evidence to exonerate De Luna, unfortunately too late to save him.

All of these elements are artfully combined into what is one of the most powerful documentary films (or any other category of film or narrative form) ever made. And despite the fact that one can’t watch this film without becoming convinced that there is something seriously wrong with America’s prison system in general and the death penalty in particular, all political issues are superseded by the story of Carroll Pickett, a man who willingly endured unspeakable emotional agony and torment because of his ministerial calling and strong religious faith. A man who is undoubtedly a “Christian” in the purest sense.

"At The Death House Door"

Whatever your political, social, or religious beliefs may be; if you are not deeply moved by this film you really ought to seek help from a trained psychiatric professional.



Ameena Mathews, herself a daughter of imprisoned Gang Leader Jeff Fort, discusses the toll of violence with a group of teens.

Ameena Mathews, herself a daughter of imprisoned Gang Leader Jeff Fort, discusses the toll of violence with a group of teens.

The Interrupters

This film was co-produced by Steve James (one half of the team that created Hoop Dreams) and author/journalist Alex Kotlowitz (best known for his book There Are No Children Here, about two brothers growing up in the Henry Horner projects). It chronicles one year on the streets of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods through the eyes of three “violence interrupters” for an organization called CeaseFire.

CeaseFire (now known as CureViolence) was founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who believes that since violence seems to mimic the same patterns as infectious disease, it should be treated as such by public authorities and the community. Namely by going after the most infected and attempting to treat the outbreak at its core.

The interrupters are key to this effort, going into distressed areas where violence has recently occurred and encouraging those closest to the victims (and the victims themselves) not to seek retribution. The interrupters mission literally brings them into the midst of a storm as they try and calm communities long wracked by violence and strife on the heels of a fresh incident.

This is aptly illustrated by a scene in the film where a fight occurs on the street right outside of a CeaseFire strategy meeting and everyone heads outside to stop things from escalating. This becomes especially difficult after a sister of an injured party rushes to the scene to seek vengeance for her bloodied brother and begins wielding a brick at members of the opposite faction.

The three interrupters followed by the filmmakers; Ameena Mathews (daughter of notorious gang leader Jeff Fort), Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra; all have past gang memberships and criminal records. This gives them a certain cachet as they try to discourage young gang members to not only resist the temptation to commit retaliatory violence in the moment, but also to eschew the gang lifestyle altogether.

The film follows their attempts to lead young people out of the cycle of crime and to quell strife in the affected communities, and also in their efforts to make up for their own criminal pasts and deal with their troubled consciences over past acts of violence. This struggle is acutely felt by Bocanegra, who details his attempts to come to terms with a murder he committed during his teens. The same theme of redemption is also illustrated by a wrenching scene where Cobe Williams takes a young recently released felon who has turned his life around back to the very barber shop he was convicted of robbing years before to apologize to those people he terrorized by his actions. An exchange between the young man and one of the women he robbed is an amazing illustration of the human capacity to change and to forgive, and of the incredible courage it takes to do both.

A major incident covered by the film is the killing of Derrion Albert, whose death during a massive street brawl was captured on video and received worldwide coverage. The filmmakers show the behind the scenes strategy sessions of CeaseFire as they scramble to prevent retribution and deal with the underlying community tensions that fueled the incident in the first place.

Of course the very gang backgrounds that provide credibility to the interrupters when they interact with residents of distressed areas are a red flag to law enforcement agencies, who view CeaseFire’s activities with varying degrees of suspicion and mistrust; particularly the fact that the interrupters will not share information gained during their interventions with authorities. Not surprisingly, CeaseFire responds that they are a violence reduction initiative, not a police agency, and that they would lose all credibility with the community if people felt they couldn’t be trusted.

The uneasy relationship between the interrupters and the police continues to this day, as do the problems of violence in the places where they work. The Interrupters doesn’t provide any magic potion for curing these problems, but it does shine a light upon some of the people who are trying one day at a time to do what they can to heal the pain felt by these communities, and by themselves.