O n a February night at the Studio Movie Grill in Chatham, Chance the Rapper commands the stage. A large and rapt crowd has turned up at the Black History Month film festival operated by his nonprofit, Social Works.
“I think it is important to shine a light on important stories,” Chance says. “There are a lot of opportunities that are afforded to certain people and thought of as just the way things are supposed to go. In our communities and in our culture, we miss a lot of those opportunities.”
He makes a dramatic pause. “I think it’s important to say what’s good.”
And then Chance introduces Shot in the Dark, a new documentary feature that captures with jolting immediacy and stylistic verve the complex and harsh inner world of the Orr Academy basketball team over a tumultuous and incident-packed two and a half years.
Chance isn’t just a cheerleader for the film: he and Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who grew up in south-suburban Robbins, signed on as executive producers during the movie’s lengthy postproduction process. Their connection brought it more attention and helped secure a national broadcast premiere on Fox on February 24.
Through the prism of a high school basketball team, Shot in the Dark meditates on race and class and concerns some of the most pressing public policy issues occasioned by social displacement, poverty, guns, violence, and extreme inequality. The movie is about the joy and recklessness of youth framed in a harsher register.
The filmmakers—director Dustin Nakao Haider, cinematographer Ben Vogel, and producer Daniel Poneman—embedded themselves with the players and coaches of the West Garfield Park high school and amassed nearly a thousand hours of footage. “Within our footage, there are five different films that could have been told,” Nakao Haider says. The first rough cut was three and a half hours.
Eschewing formal interviews, the filmmakers shot the movie cinema verite style. It’s an immersive brand of filmmaking that yields a breathtakingly raw and emotionally intimate access to the physical environment of the players. The result is spontaneous and direct though also marked by heartbreak and sorrow.
Every documentary tells two stories: the one in front of and the one behind the camera. Shot in the Dark is a work about time. What began as a concentrated and specific work about the legacy of Chicago high school basketball mutated into a six-year odyssey and labor of love for the filmmakers as well as a cautionary tale and healing process for its subjects.
The movie is structured around the echoes and parallels between the interlocking fortunes of two players, Tyquone Greer and Marquise Pryor. But the film also charts how the talented but wild and undisciplined team learns how to play together under the watchful and strict gaze of its coach, Lou Adams, a domineering figure who displays steely toughness and intensity. Orr had no significant basketball success until Adams arrived in the fall of 2008. On March 10, in Peoria, Orr defeated Winnebago 76-49 to win its second consecutive Class 2A state championship. Adams’ career record at the school is now 194-61. The current players wore custom-made Shot in the Dark warm-ups that Adams ordered specially for the state championship game.
That trajectory of on-court success, though, is constantly upended by cruel, even arbitrary, outside events. Shot in the Dark is filled with losses. In several scenes, the players encounter makeshift memorials to slain classmates. Chance’s “Summer Friends” plays over the mournful closing credits that include the names of 24 people from the community—including contemporary rival Chicago Public League players Jonathan Mills, D.J. Tolliver, Michael Haynes, and Greg Tucker—who were killed during the making of the film.
A ll three filmmakers grew up in Evanston. Poneman, who’s 26, provided their entree into the world of Public League basketball. For more than a decade, since he founded the now-defunct website Illinoishsbasketball.com and started publishing interviews, videos, and player evaluations, he’s been at the nerve center of the city’s basketball culture.
“It was a hobby,” Poneman says now. “I discovered message boards, and people talking about high school basketball. I became infatuated with providing information about these kids I knew. I did not think anybody cared what I had to say as a 15- or 16-year-old. Then I started seeing the same college basketball coaches at a lot of the games, and some of them started using me as a resource when they weren’t at the games.”
The kids he was spotlighting were almost always black and from disadvantaged communities. Poneman had a knack for transcending the cultural differences. (“I’m a very social person,” he says.) Knowing Poneman had clout with college coaches, players naturally gravitated toward him. Greer was a typical example. A shy late bloomer who didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was in eighth grade, Greer introduced himself to Poneman at a club basketball tournament in the summer of 2011, just before the start of his sophomore year. Greer had grown to six feet, six inches, and he showed tremendous promise.
“I was very intrigued in meeting [Poneman], and he watched one of my games,” Greer says. “I played well, and we built a relationship on that. In the summer, I spent a night at his house in Evanston, so he could see [what my life was like], what I was going through and the obstacles I was trying to prevail over coming from the west side, with the gangs and the violence.”
The same summer, Poneman got an e-mail from Nakao Haider, who had been two years ahead of him in high school. Nakao Haider was a movie buff and basketball fan who’d gotten lost in the rapturous sway of Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ dynasty and Steve James’s landmark 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams. After his graduation from NYU, he’d begun contributing video pieces to Jay-Z’s digital magazine Life+Times. “There was a lot of creative freedom there, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do something on Chicago basketball,” he says. Vogel, a former ETHS classmate, had recently graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design and moved to New York to look for camera work. Nakao Haider invited him to participate in his fledgling project. Then Nakao Haider contacted Poneman and sought his recommendation for players they could spotlight.
“Daniel gave me this name, Tyquone Greer, who was about to be a sophomore at Orr, this tough school,” Nakao Haider says. “I am not sure what it was about him, but his name just captured my mind.”
Greer became the subject of Ball So Hard, an 11-minute short directed by Nakao Haider and photographed by Vogel and completed in late 2011 for Life+Times. Poneman appears in it as a scout and cultural authority. (It’s available on YouTube.)
“Part of what I was after was how to deconstruct the idea of a basketball hero,” Nakao Haider explains, “because it is such a revered thing, akin to a cowboy or an astronaut, the kid who comes from nothing and is able to achieve through the grace of his athleticism and ability.”
The short turned out to be a prelude to something much more ambitious. The filmmakers had shot material of Marquise Pryor that they didn’t use in the final cut. Pryor was a year older than Greer, and he’d been groomed to be the Spartans’ star that season. A six-foot-eight power forward, he had a relentless and attacking style and showed a soft shooting touch. He had already drawn recruiting interest from a number of major schools such as Illinois and Michigan State. But his life unraveled in the fall of 2011 after he was arrested on a gun possession charge. He was sentenced to a four-month boot camp for youthful offenders at Cook County Jail.
“That December his face was on the cover of the Tribune, and when that happened, I realized this is the story I wanted to tell in feature-length form,” Nakao Haider says. “I just felt that somebody was going to tell this story if I didn’t.”
It all clicked. Poneman had the contacts, inside expertise, and legitimacy in the basketball community to ensure access. Nakao Haider and Vogel brought the technical expertise—to say nothing of Vogel’s state-of-the-art 35mm camera, which gave the more contemplative moments off the court a deeper solidity and grace.
With Pryor out because of his legal troubles, Greer became the focus of the on-court material. A mix of contradictions, nerves, and quiet intensity, Greer demonstrated a sly and intuitive camera presence. His story of navigating poverty and homelessness while resisting the dark allure of drugs and gangs had an irresistible pull. “It’s like a swamp,” Greer says in the film of west-side gang culture. “Once you get your feet stuck in the quicksand, it’s hard to get out.”
Since Robert Flaherty’s groundbreaking Nanook of the North in 1922, every documentary has had to answer the question of how the presence of the camera, however unobtrusive or invisible, alters the behavior of the subjects.
“At the beginning it was something I had to get used to,” Greer says. “Having the camera brings a lot of attention, and I just had to almost act as if they weren’t there. I think I was able to do that, and after a while it got a lot better.”
Greer is never protective or guarded onscreen, and he’s the first to acknowledge his own loneliness and vulnerability. In his senior year, after his mother and grandmother have left the city for more stable work opportunities in Mississippi, he becomes unmoored. The portrait is warts and all, and the filmmakers aren’t afraid to show his emotional lapses. In one of the most harrowing moments of the film, Greer’s frustrations get the best of him and he lashes out physically against a female cheerleader. After Adams intercedes, Greer breaks down.
Lou Adams is the moral center of the film. The team reflects his passion and direct engagement. His flamboyant, theatrical gesticulations on the sidelines get the desired results. With so many of the fathers of his players either absent or in jail, Adams is the surrogate male authority figure. (His own son, Lou Adams Jr., was a starting guard on the team).
Born in Mississippi, Adams grew up poor and fatherless and succumbed to gang and drug culture as a restless Chicago teenager. Like Pryor and Greer, his brush with violence brought about his own reckoning. His exhortations to his players constitute some of the most riveting sections of the film, a plaintive cry from the heart. “Fuck ball, fuck ball,” Adams says, addressing his players at practice one day in the aftermath of a violent incident that hangs over the entire film. “We are not talking about basketball. We are talking about the game of life.”
T he vagaries of independent film financing nearly unmade the movie. The three filmmakers financed shooting by tapping a donor network of family and friends. Nakao Haider had many unsuccessful meetings in Los Angeles trying to secure funding. The breakthrough occurred in June 2015 when he took part in a special film financing workshop called Fast Track sponsored by the organization Film Independent in LA and attracted the attention of producer and financier Jeffrey Soros. That November, Soros’s company the Los Angeles Media Fund provided the capital that enabled Nakao Haider to hire Greg O’Toole, a skilled and experienced editor.
“Editing is what makes or breaks a documentary,” Nakao Haider says. “Greg had no emotional attachment to anyone, and he helped me find the story of connecting these parallels with Tyquone, Lou, and Marquis, three people on the same path but at different stages.”
In July 2016, Nakao Haider went to Miami to show a rough cut to Wade. They’d been introduced by their mutual talent agency, Creative Arts Agency. Wade told Nakao Haider that the film reminded him of the efforts his mother made to shield him from south-side gangs and violence. “He totally identified with the kids, and he saw his story in their stories,” Nakao Haider says.
Chance came on board in March 2017. Orr Academy was one of the first beneficiaries of Chance’s ambitious $2.2 million New Chance Arts and Literature Fund to endow disadvantaged Chicago schools. “We approached [Chance] and he totally embraced the project,” Nakao Haider says. Chance and Wade gave no financial support to the film, but their connection was invaluable in getting the movie into wide release. It’s received critical praise from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Village Voice.
Off camera, life has continued to go on. Greer is now a key reserve for Ferris State, in Big Rapids, Michigan, an elite Division II program; he’s a senior scheduled to graduate this spring. Pryor will complete his parole requirements in November and hopes to resurrect his basketball career overseas. He is also developing his own clothing line, doing volunteer work for the violence conflict resolution group CeaseFire, and working to become a motivational speaker.
“Everything in the movie is authentic,” Pryor says. “I am from Englewood. It doesn’t get any worse than that, violence day in and day out, robberies, sexual assault, and kidnapping. After all the years of filming, it was a relief to see how the movie played out.
“We were at a screening at a festival in New York,” he continues, “and people came up to me afterwards in tears. I was blessed to be part of something special and share my story with the world.” v