Elgin James, director of 2011 Sundance Film Festival competition entry “Little Birds,” was sentenced to a year in prison last week in Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune, James – a former leader of a national gang called FSU – was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Suzanne B. Conlon on Tuesday for the 2006 attempted extortion of a Chicago-area musician who was the target of beatings by FSU. James had offered to make the beatings stop for $5,000.
“The last few months have been a juxtaposition of the best and worst of my life,” James said after court in a statement. “Today I faced my day of reckoning. … I have accepted responsibility for my past, and I am now looking forward to continuing my film career.”
The sentencing came just hours after the 41-year old James received a Hollywood screenwriting a contract, a result of his directorial debut “Birds” screening at Sundance in the U.S. competition program. He had told indieWIRE just before Sundance that he was utilizing his film work to start over, after his life in the gang.
“I grew up in an unstable environment,” James said in an interview with indieWIRE at the Sundance Film Festival. “I was terrified of the world as a kid and the only time I ever felt safe was when I was lost in a movie. Even as I grew older, and hardened myself with the same violence I’d feared as a kid, the only time I ever felt at peace was in a dark movie theater, dreading the moment the lights came up and I was thrust back into the real world. So when I changed my life and decided to start over, there was only one thing I wanted to do. And that was to make movies.”
Sixty letters of support were sent on James’ behalf, one of which was from Sundance founder Robert Redford.
“I believe that Elgin has the potential to make a difference,” Redford wrote to the judge. “He has an important message for people of all ages and the possibility of change (and) the power of nonviolence.”