Credit: ESPN Films
Marion Jones, left, and John Singleton walk outside the walls of Carswell Federal Prison during a recent visit to the place Jones spent six months.
John Singleton remembers being in front of the TV set nearly three years ago, with his 16-year-old daughter Justice sitting nearby, watching Marion Jones try not to cry.
He couldn’t figure out what kind of justice had just been served.
“It had such an emotional impact with all that was going on,” the famed director said Thursday afternoon from his post-production offices in Santa Monica. “Why this woman? Why was she doing jail time? Why not other people who have perjured themselves in the past?
“I felt so sad for what she was going through.”
Jones, the former Olympic gold-medal track and field star out of Thousand Oaks High, was holding a press conference outside a court room in White Plains, N.Y., having just been told she’d have to serve the maximum sentence of six years in a federal prison, 800 hours of community service and two years probation for lying to federal investigators who had questioned her in the BALCO investigation.
The scene is included in the documentary Singleton said took nearly a year and a half to put together for of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. “Marion Jones: Press Pause” debuts Tuesday, coincidentally a week after the release of Jones’ new book, “On The Right Track,” which chronicles not just her prison experience but how she wants to change her life coming out on the other side of it.
Singleton didn’t need help getting up to speed on Jones’ story.
Track and field has always been part of the DNA for the 42-year-old South L.A. native. He ran 330-meter hurdles for the Pasadena Blair High track team in the mid-’80s, an experience that incorporated into the character that Omar Epps played in the 1995 film, “Higher Learning.” That was four years after Singleton’s Oscar-nominated director role for “Boyz In The Hood.”
While Singleton said he didn’t even think of running track when he attended USC’s film school, he says he’s always had an eye on the sport, which often isn’t featured on the silver screen.
While Jones was “nervous” when she came to L.A. to meet with him to discuss the documentary, Singleton knew his single-most important job was to earn her trust.
“She had opened her arms to other news outlets in the past and some of them tried to burn her,” he said, “I assured her that I wasn’t going to do that, and I was passionate about telling her side of the story, of why she did what she did and what she learned from it.”
The message of the Jones documentary stays close to that of her new book – use me as a cautionary tale. Think before have to make an important decision. Take ownership for your actions. Don’t lie.
In “Press Pause,” the very first scene is of Jones making a public service announcement where she introduces herself, explains how she lost her five Olympic medals from the 2000 Sydney Games, lost her income and endorsements, ruined her reputation and “the most devastating loss was the loss of my freedom. I went to prison. Why? Because I took performance enhancing drugs and I lied about it.”
Singleton admits he didn’t twist this documentary into how he views the unethical hypocrisy of how athletes are treated differently for their PED use. Not even when he included a news conference clip where Jones says flat out: “I have never, ever used performance enhancing drugs and I have accomplished what I’ve accomplished because of my God-given abilities and hard work.”
“I think she was in denial,” said Singleton, “but when she was using them, they weren’t illegal. That’s the whole thing that rubs me wrong about steroids versus performance enhancing drugs. It’s not like you get some kind of shot in the arm that allows you to fly like Superman and stop moving trains. None of what she achieved wasn’t without training.
“It’s hypocritical that every major sport and organization over a 25-year period endorsed it, but at a certain point it began to be controversial and then they started pulling away.
“If you’re going to be real, this goes beyond Marion Jones. Nothing has happened to Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds, and no one is going to take away their achievements. Are people going to take down Lance Armstrong for as much as he’s done for the sport and helped people afflicted with cancer?
“But they put her in jail? They put the black woman in jail. I mean, let’s be real about it.”
Singleton said it was unsettling enough when he took Jones back to the Carswell Federal Prison in Fort Worth, Tex., where she served her time – including 48 days of solitary confinement after an altercation with inmate. He said as they walked around the outside of the building, prison guards chased them away.
Although Singleton includes interviews with sports journalists, her former teammates and coaches, her husband Oba and students who she spoke to during a Dallas-area high school appearance, it’s his time directly with Jones and her three children that have the greatest impact.
“The story here is how she has risen like a phoenix from the ashes and has become a survivor,” said Singleton, who these days is in the editing process of his latest film project, “Abduction,” with “Twilight” star Taylor Lautner. “I’ve always been a big fan of Michael Vick, and watching him make his comeback, I see a lot of similarities in their stories.
“Marion is in the middle of a pivotal issue, right or wrong, a story that’s still evolving. I think the audience will see all that.”