Elgin James is a filmmaker, musician and a former member of Friends Stand United (FSU), a Boston, Massachusetts area group in the early 1990s. FSU has been classified by several law enforcement agencies as a gang.
After a short time in orphanages and foster homes, James (who is of mixed race) was raised by civil rights activists on a rural farm in the Northeast. With a crop of marijuana in the backyard and alcohol and drug abuse in the house, James formed strong anti-drinking and anti-drug beliefs, which later led him to be a pivotal figure in the 1990s militant straight edge movement within the punk subculture. He also became a vegetarian at age 11 after watching the animals he raised on the farm slaughtered.
James discovered punk rock through an older foster brother and attended concerts by seminal hardcore punk bands Black Flag, Agnostic Front and Millions of Dead Cops. He was arrested for the first time at 12, and by 14 he ended up in juvenile hall. There he rejected the pacifist beliefs of his parents (who had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Riders movement), and began studying the writings of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton, fusing them with aggressive punk ideals.
James left juvenile hall, and inspired by civil rights attorneys William Kunstler and Morris Dees, left for Antioch College at age 17 to study pre-law. During a break in his first semester, he was involved in a gang fight and beaten in the back of the head with a baseball bat, which left him with left hemispheric brain damage. He was not able to speak or move the right side of his body. After intensive physical and speech therapy, he eventually recovered his speech and motor skills, but he ended up homeless, living on the streets and in squats across the country. He eventually settled in Boston, Massachusetts.
Friends Stand United
In Boston, James began singing for hardcore punk band Wrecking Crew and befriended a multi-racial group of kids from the tough areas of Boston and Brockton, Massachusetts. They formed FSU, which originally stood for ‘Fuck Shit Up’ however came to be known as ‘Friends Stand United’ or ‘Forever Stand United’, for the purpose of purging violent white power skinheads from the Boston hardcore scene. Having successfully eliminated several of the dominating neo-Nazi groups, James turned his attention to drug dealers, going, in his words, “right after the heart of the enemy, money”. He would rob drug dealers and then give half of that money to local charities.
While part of FSU, James and other FSU members set up an “arms for hostages” scenario in which they traded handguns with inner city gang members for pit bulls used in dog fighting rings. The dogs would then be nursed back to health and fostered until safe homes were found for them.
The founding core of FSU eventually splintered, with a large section moving on to motorcycle gangs including the Outlaws. The split was amicable, but James and other founding members decided to leave a more positive legacy and steer FSU away from the criminal world. They established the Foundation Fund, which set up scholarships at local universities (Berklee College of Music and Suffolk University Law School) in the names of FSU members who had died. The fund also holds yearly benefit concerts to raise money for charities that reflect “hardcore punk culture” (teen homelessness, anti-handgun violence, suicide prevention and local orphanages).
James and FSU were featured on National Geographic TV, the History Channel’s Gangland series and in Rolling Stone magazine.
Music and film career
James began his music career playing in straight edge hardcore bands such as Wrecking Crew, 454 Big Block and Righteous Jams. Later, James would experiment with country-influenced solo work that has been critically acclaimed and described as “hooligan folk” by the Boston Phoenix, and “folk-punk” by Wonkavision magazine.
In December 2008, James was announced as a fellow for the Sundance Screenwriters lab, whose alumni include Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alison Anders and Darren Aronofsky.
James began working on Little Birds around 2009, loosely basing the film on his own life experiences. James was originally working on an autobiographical project about he and his best friend who left their small towns and joined a gang in Boston. That film had Justin Timberlake attached to portray James and Nick Cassavetes attached to direct. But James was worried the film would ultimately “glamorize the violent lifestyle” he’d recently left behind, so he wrote Little Birds instead, substituting two fifteen-year-old girls for he and his best friend. He chose to focus on the characters of “Lily” and “Alison” after seeing a teenage girl riding on the back of a bike in the Salton Sea, with James saying “You could just tell that she was on fire and she was never going to get out of there”, referencing how he felt about being trapped in his own small town as a kid.
Juno Temple was signed onto the film and James offered her the choice of playing either Lily or Alison. She chose to portray Lily, citing that she connected with the character more and “wanted to set her free”. Temple and James worked on the film together for two years, becoming close. They continue to collaborate and in interviews refer to each other as “best friends” and “family.” James has said he considers Little Birds to be a love song to the strong women in his life, including Temple.
After auditioning hundreds of actresses, Kay Panabaker came on to the film just one week before filming. She and Temple became close by having sleepovers in each other’s hotel rooms during the shoot and “watching bad movies and eating junk food together.”
The film was produced through the Sundance Institute Labs, with producer Jamie Patricof expressing support for Little Birds.
James finished the film shortly before its screening in 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival in an effort to complete Little Birds before having to attend a trial for his actions while part of Friends Stand United.
Little Birds Reception
While considered a “Darling” and a hit when it originally premiered at Sundance film festival in 2011, when Little Birds was released in 2012 it had much more divisive reviews. Some critics criticized it for being nihilistic and without hope. The New York Post called it “An unpleasant little film about a sulking, self-mutilating 15-year-old girl.” Film School Rejects called it “A prime example of miserabilist indie cinema and, despite strong craft, consistently a tough sit.
It also garnered positive reviews. Entertainment Weekly called Little Birds “A touching and distinctive achievement.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “An assured debut…vividly captures the excitement of rule-breaking adolescent adventure.” The New Yorker described it as being full of “Shimmering fatalism.”
Some critics addressed both the film’s dark themes and its strengths. MSN’s The Hit List said “There’s such bleakness in this film, yet it’s one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve seen.” Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times said of the characters Lily and Alison “Theirs is a case of innocence not simply lost but crushed like a cigarette under the heel of a shoe.” Also saying while occasionally “frustrating” the film also has “Bursts of brilliance and moments of aching vulnerability.”
About the film, Elgin James told The New York Daily News “My goal is to take the wreckage of my life and turn it into something beautiful. Hopefully, ‘Little Birds’ accomplishes that.”
Juno Temple has said “I can’t predict what people will feel when they see it, I just want them to feel something.”
On the same note, Kay Panabake says “We’re not trying to be award-winning. We’re not trying to get people to love it. We just want people to see the film and feel something.”
Little Birds won a National Board Of Review award for Ten Best Independent Films of 2012.
Elgin James won an award from Variety and was named “Ten Directors to watch.”
Little Birds was named one of the 25 Best Summer Movies by Complex (magazine)
Paste Magazine named it one of the Fifty Best Films of 2012.
James was arrested by the FBI in Los Angeles, California on July 14, 2009, stemming from an incident four years earlier. He was charged with a criminal complaint of federal attempted extortion filed in Chicago. It is alleged that in 2005 James sanctioned an attack on an individual who had past ties to white power politics. James is then reported as to have said that the man could avoid further trouble if he made a $5,000 “donation” to FSU. After that incident, the FBI became involved, and after another attack, the victim scheduled a meeting with James to give the $5,000 while the FBI had surveillance on the encounter. The individual has been revealed to be a member of the band Mest. Speculation has been raised that lead singer Tony Lovato’s previous ties to white power groups were the reason why the band was targeted, given FSU’s anti-racist stance. However the specific Mest member who was targeted has not been revealed.
James was sentenced to one year and one day of prison by U.S. District Judge Suzanne B. Conlon in Chicago on March 8, 2011. Prosecutors had sought up to four years in prison, noting the extreme violence in which James had engaged in against Neo-Nazi skinheads. Over 60 letters of support were submitted on James’ behalf including letters from actor Ed Harris as well as Robert Redford, who James has credited with helping him turn his life around. James told the New York Times that through working with Redford “I truly realized that I needed to leave the violence of that life behind.” In Robert Redford’s letter to the judge he wrote “I believe that Elgin has the potential to make a difference. He has an important message for people of all ages and the possibility of change (and) the power of nonviolence.”
The same day James was sentenced he was hired to write a screenplay for Brian Grazer and Universal Pictures. After sentencing James said in a statement that “The last few months have been a juxtaposition of the best and worst of my life. Today I faced my day of reckoning. … I have accepted responsibility for my past.”
James served his sentence at Metropolitan Detention Center an administrative facility that handles situations such as containment of extremely dangerous, violent, or escape-prone inmates. James was released from US federal prison on March 16, 2012.
1992- Wrecking Crew, single, (vocals)
1995- 454 Big Block, “Your Jesus,” Century Media (vocals)
1996- 454 Big Block, s/t single, Big Wheel Rec (vocals)
1997- 454 Big Block, “Save Me From Myself,” Big Wheel Rec (vocals)
1997- The World is My Fuse, s/t single, Espo records (vocals)
1998- The World Is My Fuse, “Drunk,” Single, Espo Records (vocals, guitars)
1999- The World Is My Fuse, “Good Intentions,” Espo Records (vocals, guitars)
2002- The Jaded Salingers, “s/t,” Espo Records (vocals, guitars)
2003- Elgin James “For Carol..” Lonesome Recordings (vocals, guitars)
2004- Elgin James, “Long Way Home,” Lonesome Recordings comp (vocals, guitars)
2004- Righteous Jams “Rage Of Discipline,” Broken Sounds (guitars)
2005- Elgin James, “Tinted Soft Green,” Emusic Digital Singles Club (vocals, guitars)
2006- Righteous Jams “Business As Usual,” Abacus Recordings (guitars)
Live Thee Fourth (2000)
Boston Beatdown Vol. 2 (2004)
Dark Planet: Visions of America (2005)
Goodnight Moon, THINKFilms, (2007) (writer/director)
Little Birds (2011)
Low Riders (2016, writer)