Through the remarkable range of subject matter he has tackled over the course of his career, director and producer Steve James has not only helped to shape the documentary landscape, he has also held up a mirror to American society, capturing the complex ways in which systemic inequality and shifting social structures affect daily life in communities that often go unseen on the big screen. His three-decade collaboration with Chicago-based nonprofit production company Kartemquin Films has yielded such acclaimed works as his Oscar-nominated 1994 breakthrough, Hoop Dreams, which documents five years in the lives of aspiring young basketball players in Chicago’s inner city, and his recently released Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, which follows a family of Chinese-American bank owners unjustly accused of mortgage fraud.
Before the release of Abacus last month, James spoke with us about a film that has been an abiding influence on his work. With its combination of grand scale and observational intimacy, Robert Altman’s 1975 Nashville inspired James to develop his own methods of chronicling the vast tapestry of contemporary American life. In our latest installment of Under the Influence, the filmmaker explains how this intricately layered epic interweaves narrative and documentary approaches and what makes its portrait of political tensions in the 1970s more relevant than ever.