When the documentary Soul in the Hole opens, Kenny Jones – a round, profane, pissed-off black man – fills the screen. The coach of a Bed-Stuy b-ball team, he's cursing out a referee for a bad call, his sucker-punch being to call the unnerved man a faggot. Jones is pure Negro stereotype, wound up and out of control. What we can't know is that we've been dropped into the middle of a story. After the camera pulls back, slowly filling us in on the tale's beginning and guiding us toward the end, it also peels layers off the agitated Jones. The stripped-down remnant is a hard-working, loving, very funny family man. The stereotype collapses.
“That was conscious,” says 33-year-old Danielle Gardner, director of Soul. “That's what we really wanted to do. People look at certain people, and they just assume. We have stereotyped so much that when you see someone like Kenny, you think you know him, and you don't. I wanted to throw it in people's faces.”
Soul in the Hole's backdrop is 1993's summer season of Bed-Stuy's street-ball tournaments. Gardner and her producer/partner, Lilibet Foster, spent that summer ostensibly tracking the games; in truth their cameras were aimed at Jones; his 18-year-old charge, Ed “Booger” Smith; and those orbiting the duo's tumultuous relationship – including Jones' wife, Ronnet, a woman whose warmth is girded by a no-nonsense foundation. The tensions that build around the game take a back seat to the film's real interest: capturing the complexities and nuances in the neighborhood's residents and the relationships they've forged.
“I started off in journalism,” says Foster, 32, “and my passion lies in true stories, stories that most people don't know about. With Soul in the Hole, we found a world that no one ever thinks of when they think of Bed-Stuy, because in every other film, in all the newscasts, the place is portrayed as a wasteland. Because our film doesn't portray it like that, a lot of people – even those who like the film – have a hard time with it. We have a different perspective than they're used to.”
Foster and Gardner met five years ago when they were grinding out documentaries for PBS. Having recently returned from England, where she'd spent a few years making nonfiction film, Gardner was itching to make one her way. After reading Heaven Is a Playground, a book on street basketball and players, and inspired by her ball-playing brother, Gardner knew she had her subject.
She and Foster formed Asphalt Films NY and privately arranged financing, in the process insuring creative control. Armed with a 16mm camera and two production assistants, the duo set out to tell the stories behind the ball, in the process immersing themselves in the community. “We wanted to do as much as we could ourselves,” says Gardner, “and then maybe get financial backers after our own vision was clear and whoever backed us would support it.”
While Soul was still being filmed, Hoop Dreams was released, garnering not only acclaim but profits. Drenched in white-liberal guilt and arrogance, Hoop tried to have it both ways, decrying a sports racket that uses young black males as 1-D pawns while itself refusing to grant them 3-D status. The film is a prickly subject with Gardner, who shifts in her seat and twists her mouth uncomfortably when it's brought up.
“I've kind of not talked about Hoop Dreams 'cause I don't know if I want other filmmakers criticizing my film. But, yeah, I was kind of upset with it. I thought it did confirm a lot of messed-up stereotypes. I looked at that film and didn't know those people. I do think it did a disservice, actually.” Soul in the Hole crackles because it sidesteps easy depictions, using the camera to broaden, not flatten, the hues in its characters' lives. “I thought,” says Gardner, “these kids were going to be so tough, and you meet them and they talk about girls and clothes and their friends. Not that that's any great revelation, but maybe in our society it is.”