James was born in Hampton, Virginia. He directed the 1997 feature film Prefontaine and the TV movies Passing Glory and Joe and Max. One of his more recent films, The Interrupters, a portrayal of a year inside the lives of former gang members in Chicago who now intervene in violent conflicts, was released in January 2011, after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. The film is his sixth feature length collaboration with his long-time filmmaking home, the non-profit Chicago production studio Kartemquin Films, and is also his fifth feature to be accepted into the Sundance Film Festival.
While working with Kartemquin Films, James has produced many films that pursue social inquiry and change. Their collaborations include the 1994 hit Hoop Dreams, which is one of James' best known works. Kartemquin films, a non-profit group that produces films promoting "social inquiry", is based in Chicago. Much of James' work is based in the area, predominately the inner cities and impoverished areas. Their collaborations often touch on the topics of sports and race, including the ESPN 30 for 30 film No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson.
He also recently directed the documentary film Head Games which follows football player and wrestler Chris Nowinski's quest to uncover the truth about the consequences of sports related head injuries. On September 7, 2012, it was announced via social networking site Twitter that James would be involved in the making of a documentary on the life of film critic Roger Ebert.
There've been many documentaries over the years that have powerfully impacted me. I think this one came along at the time when I was more interested in being a feature filmmaker than a documentary filmmaker. So it came along at the beginning of a process of moving from an interest in feature film to documentaries, and that’s where my career has taken me. It came along at the right time for me. It helped me see, "Ah, this is more what I want to do."
James also pulls influence from the original definition of the term cinéma vérité as it applies to the Rouch/Morin method of filmmaking. Just as with Rouch and Morin, the "people on camera and we in the audience are continually reminded that a film is being made, that we are watching a film." We are reminded of this through James' presence on screen as well as his cinematic editing techniques, in order to obtain, what he believes is a more accurate depiction of truth.
^James, Steve. Interview by Robert K. Elder. The Film That Changed My Life. By Robert K. Elder. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2011. N. p113. Print.
^McLane, Betsy A., and Jack C. Ellis. 2005. "Chapter Fourteen: Direct Cinema and Cinéma Vérité, 1960-1970." 208-226. Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd -- Books, 2005. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 16, 2009). pg. 2214/15