Cinema Eye Honors 2019: Steve James Passes the Torch to Protégé Bing Liu

"Minding the Gap" and "Free Solo" were the most awarded documentaries, with "Hale County This Morning, This Evening" winning the top honor.
Bing Liu, Steve James, and
Bing Lui, Steve James, and composer Joshua Abrams

When legendary “Hoop Dreams” filmmaker Steve James retires from making award-winning documentaries, he could almost certainly fall back on a career in stand-up, or at least hit the circuit as an awards show host. James was in rare comedic form at the 12th Annual Cinema Eye Honors Awards, held Thursday night at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, his energy livening up a somewhat sober crowd. He missed no opportunity to mention his Oscar-nominated film from last year, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” which lost out to Bryan Fogel’s similarly titled “Icarus.”

“‘Icarus’, ‘Abacus,’ ‘Icarus,’ ‘Abacus,’ and then they gave it to ‘Icarus,'” said James. “So I missed it by a few letters. And it really dawned on me as I was sitting there that most people thought they were voting for ‘Abacus’ when they voted for ‘Icarus.'”

Dad jokes aside, it was a winning night for James in more ways than one: not only was he awarded Best Nonfiction Film for Broadcast for “America to Me,” but he had the honor of watching his protégé Bing Liu take home three top awards for his debut feature, “Minding the Gap.” Liu and his film were singled out for Outstanding Direction, Outstanding Editing, and Outstanding Debut. Incidentally, Liu also worked as a story director on “America to Me,” and James urged him onstage to share in the series’ award.

“At the time I was working in the camera department, and Steve James emailed me out of the blue,” Liu shared humbly. “And I was like, ‘Cool!,’ but on the inside of my head I was like ‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’”

The praise went both ways. When James lauded the documentary community’s exciting new voices, he made sure to single Liu out as an incredible young talent. “His first film premiered when he was a mere 29 years old. I remember when my first film premiered,” James said. “I was just, um, 40.”

Minding the Gap
“Minding the Gap”Sundance

Liu was not the only debut filmmaker to make a splash Thursday. RaMell Ross’ “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” was named Outstanding Feature. For his painterly re-imagining of black life onscreen, Ross whittled over 1,200 hours of footage into a 78-minute film, which James quipped was “not as long as the title.”

“I personally think that the visualization of places is responsible for the perpetuation of ideology,” Ross said, accepting the night’s top honor. “And I think documentary film is the perfect genre in order to use your imagination and still sort of use the language of truth to imagine a better future, and therefore deal with the colonial alabaster aesthetics that we know so well hold a pretty damning relationship to the American mind.”

On that note, this year’s Legacy Award was presented to the landmark PBS documentary series “Eyes on the Prize,” with many of the key creative team behind the film on hand to accept the award. The Oscar-winning team behind 2016’s “O.J.: Made in America” Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow presented the award, and both shared teenage memories of first encountering the definitive series about the Civil Rights Movement.

Sandi Tan’s one-of-a-kind “Shirkers” picked up two awards, and rock climbing stunner “Free Solo” took home three, making Jimmy Chin (“Meru”) the most awarded filmmaker in Cinema Eye’s history. Nominated box-office hits “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” were shut out, but James made sure to note their incredible financial success.

“You know, back when ‘Hoop Dreams’ came out, it was the all time box office champion,” he added. “I don’t know how many of you guys realize that.”

Check out the full list of Cinema Eye Honors winners below.

Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”
Directed by RaMell Ross
Produced by Joslyn Barnes, Su Kim, and RaMell Ross

Outstanding Achievement in Direction
Bing Liu
“Minding the Gap”

Outstanding Achievement in Editing
Joshua Altman and Bing Liu
“Minding the Gap”

Outstanding Achievement in Production
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Evan Hayes, and Shannon Dill
“Free Solo”

Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography
Jimmy Chin, Clair Popkin and Mikey Schaeffer
“Free Solo”

Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Score
Ishai Adair

Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation
Lucas Celler and Sandi Tan

Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film
“Minding the Gap”
Directed by Bing Liu

Audience Choice Prize
“Free Solo”
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Film for Broadcast
“Baltimore Rising”
Directed by Sonja Sohn for HBO

Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Film for Broadcast
“America to Me”
Directed by Steve James for STARZ

Spotlight Award
“The Distant Barking of Dogs”
Directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont

Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking
“My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes”
Directed by Charlie Tyrell

Heterodox Award
“American Animals”
Directed by Bart Layton

Legacy Award
“Eyes On the Prize”
Executive Producer Henry Hampton
Series Producer/Writer/Director Judith Vecchione Series Producer Jon Else
Director/Writer/Producers Orlando Bagwell, Sheila Curran Bernard, Callie Crossley, James A. DeVinney, Madison D. Lacy, Thomas Ott, Samuel D. Pollard, Terry Kay Rockefeller, Jacqueline Shearer, and Paul Stekler

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