PBS Premiere: Aug. 16, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is Hardwood about?

Hubert Davis: Hardwood started out as a story about my father, who played for the Harlem Globetrotters for 18 years. My dad is absolutely passionate about basketball — it's his life. Actually, he sees life as just another metaphor for basketball. Basketball saved him from the situation he grew up in, in the slums of Chicago, and allowed him to escape. But the time he spent traveling the world with the Globetrotters also affected his family life.

Growing up with my dad often in the spotlight, I felt there was an angle about that story that hadn't been told — the story of my mom and me, and my dad coming into my life when I was 12 years old.

My mother, who is white, and my dad, who is black, met in the 60s at a time when they thought the relationship couldn't work. They were very much in love but they felt like society wasn't ready for an interracial relationship, so they broke it off. My dad went back to Chicago, married a black woman, and had a son. While my dad was traveling on the road with the Globetrotters he met up with my mom, they resumed that relationship, and they had me.

So Hardwood is a story about my dad's life, how he had two families, and the effect of his choices on me and on my brother. It's about the things in families that we don't talk about, when we just keep moving on in our lives. It's also a story of redemption. It's about how to heal old wounds.

POV: At what point did you decide to integrate your brother's story into the film?

Davis: When I started making this documentary, the questions I had were mostly for my parents. Why they decided to have me when they did, knowing that my dad was not going to be in my life, and why he decided to come back into my life when I was 12 years old. But a film takes on a life of its own and you find different answers, answers that you didn't even know you were looking for. I realized there was a lot of pain and resentment in my brother's story, because my dad left him when he was 12 years old, to come and join my mom and me.

POV: How did your family feel about participating in the filmmaking process?

Davis: It's tough when you make a documentary about your own family because often you're putting them in a situation that's uncomfortable. You're asking questions that they might not necessarily want to answer. And as a filmmaker, your goals are very different than as a member of that family, as a son, and as a brother. I'd never want to put my family in a situation they weren't comfortable with, but in order to tell the story I really had to do that.

There's something about putting a camera in the room that allows you to hide behind it as a filmmaker. And in front of a camera people tend to tell you information that you haven't heard before. Sitting in a room on a Sunday is not the time to bring up painful things in your life, to say, "You know, Dad, why was it that you decided to come back in my life?" That just never happened naturally in my life. Once you bring a camera into that situation, you can say, "I'm doing this because I'm trying to document it." But really, what you're doing is asking a lot of the questions that you've wanted to ask throughout your life. I know my brother felt the same way. It was time to finally get some things out on the table. Making a film is just one of a few ways you can do that in your life.

Ultimately, I think my family all stepped up and came forward because they really felt like it was a healing process for them. In particular, my brother and I shared a lot of unresolved issues with my father. So it was important for us to address them. Both our families came forward out of love for their sons to say, "If this is going to help you in the healing process, we're willing to do it." It was very, very courageous of them to do it.

POV: Why did you choose to have your brother interview his mother?

Davis: I wanted to make everyone as comfortable as possible. So when I was in Vancouver, I interviewed my mom, and I wanted to portray it as just a conversation between the two of us. I wanted her to feel comfortable with what she was sharing with me, because I was learning a lot of the answers for the first time myself.

When I went to Chicago, I wanted that same dynamic with my brother and his mom. I really felt uncomfortable in that situation interviewing Mawuli's mom, because it was a conversation between her and her son. These were the questions that he really wanted answered, as opposed to the questions I had as a filmmaker.

POV: How long did the film take to make?

Davis: The hardest part for me was getting the funding together to shoot the film, as any independent filmmaker will tell you. As a first-time filmmaker, you're really hoping that funders understand what you're going after, and that you're going to deliver it. So that was kind of the initial challenge for me. It took about three years to come up with the money and then another year of shooting and editing. In all, it was about a four-year process.

POV: What do you think is the film's ultimate message?

Davis: There are certain cycles that we inherit in life, and it is ultimately up to us to recognize those cycles and change them. For me, making the film was a way of breaking a cycle in my life. It was coming to terms with what my family history was and saying, "I don't have to repeat it, I don't have to do the same thing. I am totally responsible for what the direction of my life is going to be."

And making the film changed my family in a way. There was so much miscommunication that had happened over such a long period of time. I think we all grew to understand each other not just as family members, but as people who were going through our lives, sometimes making the right choice, sometimes making the wrong one. The important thing was that we all saw each other as one family.

I was also trying to get across how important fathers are in our lives. My dad never grew up with a father — his father left him when he was a couple years old and he never saw him again. That profoundly affected his life in a couple ways. It didn't allow him, at times, to be the best father himself. But he really turned his life around.

He's an incredible leader and member of the community. And that's what he's done his whole life, and still does today in Vancouver. He's a father figure and now a grandfather figure to a lot of kids who are also growing up without fathers.

POV: How do you hope Hardwood will impact audiences?

Davis: What I'm hoping they take away from it is that whatever family issues they have, they can see a film like Hardwood and see my specific story, and see universal themes in their own stories. And that we all have the power to ultimately change the direction of our lives. That it isn't something that we're all dealing with alone. That we all, ultimately, like my father and myself, have the power to change.

When I started making Hardwood, I thought a lot of the issues were not just about my family, but were common in the African-American experience. I wanted everyone to understand that experience, and I've found people have. It doesn't matter if you're black or white, you can still understand the dynamics of family, of not having a father or of meeting another sibling later in life.

POV: What are you working on now?

Davis: I'm working on another documentary called The Invisible City, which is about racial profiling in the city, told through personal stories — a cop's point of view, a lawyer's point of view, a young person's point of view. It follows them through the process of living in the city and the hidden stories that we often don't hear about.