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Elgin James leaves a gang and finds a family

September 08, 2012|By Elgin James
  • Producer Jamie Patricof, left, director Elgin James and actress Juno Temple attend a screening of "Little Birds" at the Grove on July 17, 2012, in Los Angeles.
Producer Jamie Patricof, left, director Elgin James and actress Juno Temple… (Todd Williamson, Invision…)

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.

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