A Virginia native, James received his masters from Southern Illinois University in the mid-1980s and subsequently began a long association with Kartemquin Films, producing and/or directing documentaries. In 1991, he wrote and directed "Grassroots Chicago," about the crucial role that community organizations play in the fight for social change. He also made the "Stop Substance Abuse" films and videos which featured Michael Jordan and Walter Payson. With the success of "Hoop Dreams," James has become associated with the human side of athletics. In 1996, he joined with Peter Gilbert again to make a segment on the Serbo-Croat basketball team for the "Sports Illustrated Olympics Special: A Prelude to the Games." The following year, he made his feature directorial debut with "Prefontaine," starring Jared Leto as the American Olympic runner who died tragically before the 1976 games. Since the film was a biography of sorts, James (aided by Gilbert's camerawork) created a fictional film with the feel of a documentary. Some critics faulted the narrow focus and "talking head" style which included expositional interviews by the family and friends of the main character (played by actors).