New documentary about Orr basketball is truly a moving picture
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Chance the Rapper was there, so that made it ultra-cool.
But the debut showing of the documentary ‘‘Shot in the Dark’’ at the Studio Movie Grill in Chatham on Monday night needed no one, no celebrity, no executive producer (as Chance is, along with Dwyane Wade), no crowd, no nothing to display itself as one of the most moving, exciting, emotionally riveting films about sports and inner-city life that has been made in, well, in the 23 years since Steve James’ iconic ‘‘Hoop Dreams’’ blew us out of the water.
“Shot in the Dark,’’ which follows the Orr basketball team through two seasons, took six years to complete, and like “Hoop Dreams,’’ the film was at first going to be a short, just a few minutes long, telling a brief story.
The dynamic changed, as it did for “Hoop Dreams’’ — which took five years to complete — because the guys behind the camera could not wrest themselves away from the human tales that slowly unveiled themselves, surfacing from the dark sea of poverty and hopelessness like flecks of cinematic gold.
“There were the three of us,’’ said producer Dan Poneman of the early shooting. “Me, director Dustin Nakao-Haider, and cinematographer Ben Vogel. We had no money and I remember we would only buy, like, $20 of gas to get to and from Orr, and we all ate crazy, cheap food and lived at home. I was 20 and they were 22, and we were friends who went to Evanston High School together.
“What we found was that we loved [troubled Orr star] Tyquone Greer, and we stumbled into Lou [Adams, the head coach], which was crazy, and we just wanted to show the community for what it is. A bigger story. And our goal was honesty.’’
Man, did they hit that.
I did not know Greer, who was at the screening, but I had heard much about him: That he was senselessly shot at a street party; that he was an erratic 6-6 star; that he came back a few days after being shot in the calf and made the game-winning basket that sent Orr to the 2014 Class 3A state semifinals.
In the film, Greer is so open and vulnerable that a viewer is rooting for the clearly intelligent but snakebitten youth even before he breaks down and sobs over his life situation (mother gone to Mississippi, virtual homelessness, the shooting, no scholarship offers, no money, no future but the gang life that surrounds him).
But Adams, I know well.
He is the coach from an impoverished Deep South background who is so focused on his West Side boys that the screaming and passion and stress send him to the hospital for heart tests.
To see Lou bare-chested, hooked up to electrodes, lying on a surgical table to determine his fate is to see the depths of this film and the way the involved surrendered to the small camera that followed them everywhere.
Adams is an amazing man. He was at the screening, too. And when asked if he would be going to Los Angeles with the others for the debut of the film on NBA All-Star weekend, he said no way. His Spartans are fighting for the city championship right now, hoping to make it to Chicago State’s gym for the finals Sunday. And Lou’s there — living and dying with his team.
It’s astonishing, but he and Greer move this movie the way two Hollywood A-list actors would. Denzel Washington could not be more effective than Adams in conveying pent-up desire and want. No young actor could be better at showing Greer’s genuine inner turmoil, his breakdown from a future spinning into chaos that he is powerless to control.
The trio of main guys did everything, in whatever form they could.
“We shot the whole thing on a little camera,’’ says Poneman. “We all were the sound guy, the assistant director, whatever.’’
And this is the way greatness occurs, not for money, but for love and passion.
A few years ago director Nakao-Haider, an NYU film school grad, went to the 20th anniversary showing of “Hoop Dreams’’ at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem, and was mightily impressed. The theater was named for legendary documentarian Albert Maysles, who was there that night, not long before he would die at age 88 in 2015. What he said left a deep impression on the young director.
“The camera is an extension of love between you and the person you’re filming.’’
“That really stuck with me, ‘’ says Nakao-Haider.
And it stuck with this film. What a gift to us all.
Editor’s note: The TV debut of “Shot in the Dark” will be Feb. 24 on Fox at 3:30 p.m.
Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.