Elgin James leaves a gang and finds a family

First Person: Despite my prison term, it was my colleagues in Hollywood — yes, Hollywood — who gave me encouragement.

In the summer of 2009 I was dragged into a federal courtroom in handcuffs and leg irons. I'd been looking for a sense of family my entire life, a journey that had led me to a street gang for a decade and a half. So the arraignment on extortion charges wasn't a surprise, but the timing was. I'd left the gang three years earlier and had just found out my film"ENMV0002398">, "Little Birds,"was fully financed and we were set to begin shooting.

But 12 hours later, I was surrounded by FBI agents outside my home and arrested for a 4-year-old incident. That night I sat in a prison cell looking out a thick, scratched sliver of a window thinking of my wife and all of the promises I'd made. Thinking of my producers and mentors, and the people who had helped shape me from a gang member into an artist. I lay back in my bunk unable to sleep, sure all of those relationships were now in flames.

I'd grown up terrified of the world. Nights spent curled in a ball trying to disappear in the crack between my bed and the wall while my mother screamed for my father to stop. The worst thing about a 7-year-old being punched by a grown man is that you become emotionally frozen at that age. Whatever suffering you go on to inflict as an adult feels justified because of what you endured. Prison is full of "innocent" men and women, because we're all convinced the world had it coming.

What I couldn't get at home, I would try to find on the streets with my friends. I wound up homeless as a teenager with a bunch of other throwaway kids. In Boston my best friend and I found kindred spirits who shared our love of hard-core punk and desire to kick the world in the teeth. We were boys without fathers, trying to figure out how to be men. We were young and angry and ripe for the picking by the gangs that surrounded us, so we started our own in defense. White, black, Latino and Jewish, we targeted the neo-Nazi skinhead movement that was exploding across the country.

What we lacked in numbers we made up for in viciousness. A few of us were also straight edge (meaning we'd sworn off narcotics and alcohol), so to survive we would rob drug dealers, giving part of the money to charity. It was a clumsy form of philanthropy, but we felt the world was a horrible place, and we'd sink to that horror to clean it up. We were boys without fathers who may have read too many comic books.

Until suddenly you're not a boy anymore. I woke up almost a decade and a half later a gang member in my 30s. I had tried to escape the violence and misery of my home, only to be swallowed up by it tenfold. My wake-up call was my mother getting sick. I stayed by her side in the hospice apologizing for having done nothing with my life except break her heart. She told me it wasn't too late for a second chance. She knew what she was talking about: At age 60 she had finally left my father and started over. And though cancer cut it short, she spent the last years of her life free, vibrant and at peace.

Trying to start over

Packing up everything we had, my girlfriend and I drove off to Los Angeles. I had the ridiculous plan of making movies. I'd never made one before and wasn't really sure what it entailed, but when I was a scared kid growing up the only time I wasn't plagued by nervous tics was when I was lost inside a book or watching my favorite films like "Billy Jack" or "Planet of the Apes." And later, when I was on the streets of Boston, I'd sneak off from my friends to go to art-house theaters like the Coolidge and the Brattle. I'd stay through the final credit, dreading the moment the lights came up and I was forced back out onto the street.

I wanted to tell my story but was worried I'd end up glamorizing the violence I was still trying to make sense of. I'd had a false start when I first got to L.A. when a project based on my life story was set up, not for me to write or direct, but to simply option my life rights and sit in the room when the writers and producers pitched the studios. But I'd come home sick to my stomach after having the story of my mother dying while holding my hand reduced to an "act break." We had no money, and nothing on the horizon, but my girlfriend, who had believed in me enough to follow me to L.A. on a pipe dream, and then believed in me enough to become my wife, gave me the strength to walk away and try it on my own.

I wrote the screenplay for "Little Birds," turning the story of my best friend and I moving to Boston and joining a gang into two 15-year-old girls running away from the shores of the Salton Sea to Los Angeles, where they quickly get in over their heads. Jamie Patricof, who'd produced one of my favorite films, "Half Nelson," had originally wanted to meet about my life story project, but I sent him the script for "Little Birds" instead. When he read it and asked to meet it was the first time anyone had ever spoken to me as if I was an artist. I felt like any minute he was going to realize he'd made a terrible mistake and had actually thought I was someone else. He introduced me to Michelle Satter of the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program. She changed my life.

Michelle and the Sundance Institute invited me to their screenwriter and director labs in Utah where young filmmakers get to work with accomplished artists to find their individual voice. The institute took a huge risk on me, someone with no education, no filmmaking experience and not a lot of redeemable qualities on paper. I had incredible advisors like Catherine Hardwicke, Tyger Williams, Walter Mosley and my cherished friend and mentor, actress and director Joan Darling, pushing me to get past my anger and the walls I'd built around myself to the hurt and the loss underneath. I was given a language other than violence to express the wreckage inside me.

Michelle Satter pushed me to make "Little Birds" more personal, and eventually my screenplay about two 15-year-old girls became less about my best friend and I and more about what was churning inside of me. Like the character Lily, I grew up suffocating in a small town, wanting to get out into the world. And when I did, the world ate me up and spat me back out. And like the character, Alison, what I wouldn't give now to go back to that small town, to hear my mother's voice calling me in for dinner. To appreciate what I'd had, instead of obsessing over what I was missing.

Most importantly, because of the Sundance labs I had strong male role models for the first time in my life. Which, if not ridiculous enough because I was in my 30s, was made even more ridiculous by the fact that they were Robert Redford and Ed Harris. My measure of manhood had always been a capacity for cruelty against others, but they helped me realize that violence comes out of fear and weakness. By giving me the tools of filmmaking, they helped me learn to channel my energy and let the fear go. And by their example, they taught me that strength comes from being honest about who you truly are.

Redford pulled my card about my refusal to renounce violence. I was still wrestling with letting go of the very thing I believed saved my life. The world only stopped kicking me when I started kicking back harder, my father only stopped hitting me when I raised my fist in response. But, having experienced violence in his youth himself, he broke down that negativity and rage. But it was love and compassion, learned specifically from my mother, that had gotten me to the labs. And those were the traits that would make me a better artist. That day at Sundance I swore to never raise my fist to another human being again.

Supportive community

I came back to Los Angeles rejuvenated. Then I was arrested and charged with having four years earlier forced a person with past ties to a white power group to pay money to charity to stop getting physically attacked. I'd been able to change my life, to crawl out of the hole I'd dug for myself by taking responsibility for my actions, and I did. I was guilty and said so.

I was shuffled into the Los Angeles federal courthouse shackled with a dozen other prisoners. Defeated, I kept my head down, but when I finally looked up I saw my wife in the courtroom next to Jamie Patricof and "Little Birds" executive producer Kevin Iwashina. When I was released on bond, the first people I heard from were Michelle Satter and Ilyse McKimmie to let me know that the Sundance Institute would support me in any way I needed. And they did. Redford, Harris, Hardwicke, Mosley, Williams and Keith Gordon all rallied valiantly on my behalf. I knew I was going to prison; all I wanted was to be able to get my film made first.

And that's when I found out that, more than any neck-tattooed gang member, the two most loyal and bravest people I know are a little English actress named Juno Temple and a (at the time) 7-month pregnant cinematographer named Reed Morano. With the clock ticking, they put as much of their own blood, sweat and DNA into getting "Little Birds" made as I did. When I would stumble, they were there to pick me up. They helped set the tone for the cast and crew who never blinked whether filming in 108-degree weather in the Salton Sea or spending a week shooting in an abandoned, crack-vial-filled motel in Koreatown.

When "Little Birds" premiered at Sundance, I think some people were expecting a sensationalistic movie about blood and violence. What they got was a quiet film about friendship and who's left standing beside you when the bottom falls out.

I was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison. The morning of my sentencing, I signed my first screenwriting contract, pushed through by Brian Grazer, Kim Roth and Sarah Bowen at Imagine, so my wife would have money while I was gone. And I'd have a reason to get through whatever was ahead of me, a career waiting at the end of a dark tunnel.

I went to prison at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, ready to pay my debt to a society I'd admittedly caused harm to. I was released from prison this March, and now my film is finally being released in Los Angeles on Friday. I have two projects I'm working on with Brian Grazer and Imagine, as well as a film I'm prepping to shoot in the spring for Jamie Patricof. I was able to do my prison time with a sense of peace, and, ironically, freedom. Because after all these years, I knew I'd finally found the family I'd been looking for. And in the last place most people would think to look — Hollywood.

calendar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°