James: As director, one of my jobs was to stay in touch with the subjects. Arthur lived 20 blocks from me and sometimes he didn’t have a working phone, so I would just drive over to check in. This was around sophomore year, we weren’t shooting much. I went over and talked to Sheila [Arthur’s mom], and she told me Arthur had been kicked out of St. Joe’s and was now enrolled at Marshall, the public high school. They never told me they were struggling with payments. So she told me when the next game was, and I went there and watched him play before the varsity game. He sat to watch the varsity play, and I went to him, and he was surprised to see me.
Agee: I just thought that because I wasn’t at St. Joe’s, that would be the end of my participation in the film. My whole self-esteem and confidence had fallen off. I had to sit out for three months of school, and didn’t get into Marshall until January 1988.
James: And I wasn’t coming from that scumbag documentary angle where every misfortune that happens to your subject is interesting. I felt really bad for him. I told him, “We didn’t pick you to follow because we were convinced you were going to the NBA, we picked you because you have the dream. So we want to continue following you if you want us to.”
Agee: That talk with Steve really assured me that they had my best interests, and they really wanted to be part of my life. That talk with Steve was like talking to my uncle.
James: So we scrambled together and shot Arthur at Marshall and Sheila explaining what happened. That was a significant moment in building trust with the family, because we didn’t just pack up and go away. That was a breakthrough moment.
When Arthur got kicked out, that got us thinking, “How is William making his payments?” His family had as much money as Arthur’s. Then we found out that William had a benefactor, the president of Encyclopedia Britannica, who is sponsoring him and making his payments. So suddenly St. Joe’s wasn’t everything we thought it was, and the film deepened in many ways.
James: When we were filming with William, we would ask him from time to time, “Got a girlfriend?” We just always wondered. And he would be like, “No, no, no.” He was private about that stuff. I was talking to Emma [William’s mom] one day, and she said, “You know William has a kid?” And I was like, “What?” She said, “Oh yeah, Catherine has been his girlfriend since grammar school.”
Gates: They thought she was my older brother David’s girlfriend. And I didn’t even say anything. [From the Criterion Collection commentary.]
James: So I talked to William after that on the phone, and he goes, “Yeah.” And I wasn’t pissed off, I was just surprised, and I asked, “Why haven’t we met Catherine?” He said, “I didn’t want to tell you guys, because I felt like for the film, I’d come off like I’m just another black teenage kid having babies out of wedlock, and that whole thing that people look down on.” So I asked him what his plan was, if he was going to marry Catherine. And he said yes. I told him, “You guys are actually defying the stereotype, and that’s something that should be in the film.” I don’t remember if he agreed to it then, but obviously he agreed.
Peter, Fred, Gordon, and I talked a lot about this part of the film in terms of “How do we portray this?” And we decided that we wanted to spring it on the audience the same way it was sprung on us.
James: I checked in with Sheila once, and she told me their power was shut off. She was on welfare for the first time in her life. She was pretty upset. I said to her, “We should probably come over and shoot.” She was concerned. She thought people were going to think the worst of them. I told her my hope was that people would understand their predicament. She let us come over. But I’m embarrassed to say I really mishandled this. I knew Arthur was upset about the power, and I was worried he would shoot us down if we asked to come over, so we purposely showed up to film when he was at practice.
Agee: I noticed their car was out front, so I’m thinking “They’re waiting for me to film stuff,” but they were filming in the house already. So that ticked me off, because I was embarrassed about the situation.
James: If you look for it, you’ll see in the scene that he’s pissed. Yes, he doesn’t have electricity, but he’s also not happy with us, and deservedly so.
Agee: But they were family to me, and my mom said to always respect your elders, so I didn’t disrespect them. I just gave a look the whole time they were filming.
Gilbert: Arthur was really pissed off when we were filming. But I think it showed how strong they were.
James: That was not a high point in my career on how to deal with subjects.
Gilbert: And we turned the lights back on for them, which we got criticized for after the film was released.
James: Yeah, some of it was probably guilt, but it was the least we could do. We thought, “Fuck that whole journalistic-ethics thing, we should do this because we’ve been in these folks’ lives, we owe them this.”
Gilbert: I’ve worked with people who say they can’t do that because it changes things. I take issue with that.
Agee: Looking back, I’m glad they filmed it, because other kids can relate to that situation, and get something out of that by seeing us face up to it.
James: Sheila gradually became my main source for what was going on with the family. For all Arthur’s big personality, he was close-mouthed about a lot of things. Sheila shared with me that Bo [Arthur’s father] had left. She didn’t talk much about what he was doing, but we heard he was running around the streets, and he was probably using. We were in the playground filming Arthur one day, and Bo showed up.
Agee: I hadn’t seen my dad in probably three weeks. He was strung out on cocaine.
James: We were struck by how awful he looked. He looked completely strung out.
Agee: I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and I’m like, “Oh, shit.” So I went right to him before he could get to the court, and told him they were filming, but I really felt like saying to him, “Where’s your fucking shirt?”
Gilbert: For me, that was one of those sad, rare moments when you’re a shooter and you have subjects you care about, and you realize the depths of where things are at. I can’t tell you about framing that scene, because it just becomes instinctual. You’re following what’s going on, and capturing the moment. I think Steve and I drove home pretty heartbroken that day.
James: [Arthur] was very unhappy with his dad, and it was clear. And then Bo wondered off to the corner of the playground to buy drugs, and you see Arthur’s concern.
When the film was nearly done, and we showed it to the families, I was really worried about that moment. I thought Bo was going to have a fit—by that point, he was off drugs and in a much better place. I was working up all the arguments of why it should be in he film. I was expecting a fight over it. When that scene ends Bo said, “Stop the tape.” And I’m like, “Oh, shit.” And he said, “I need to see that again.” So we rewind it and watch the scene again, and then we watch it once more. We pause it, and he goes, “Wow, I don’t even remember that. I can’t believe y’all got that.”
Agee: He just sat in his seat and didn’t say anything for like three minutes.
James: I asked him if he’s cool with it, and he said “Absolutely.” He was starting a church, and he said, “This will be good for my ministry, for people to see where I was and where I am now.” It was just a huge sigh of relief.