Longtime Highland Park resident and nationally acclaimed writer and filmmaker John Hulme is a lemonade-out-of-lemons kind of guy. He takes the traumatic losses in his life – including the loss of his own father in the Vietnam War – and transforms them into uplifting pieces of film art. He works through his emotional lows by creating professional highs with his filmmaking.
On Saturday, Oct. 22, at Highland Park High School, the community viewed John’s latest creation inspired by a loss – the film Blood Sweat & Tears, a feature-length documentary about a high school championship basketball game that explores race relations, the economic class divide, anti-Semitism, and police profiling. The film is uplifting on two levels – it is a great piece of art, plus a profound humanitarian accomplishment. John, a filmmaker and writer for the past 25 years, not only tells a compelling story of a high school basketball rivalry, but also uses that story to create the Highland Park African American History Project, a digital story-telling project focusing humanitarian and race issues.
In 1987, 6’6” John Hulme played center for the Highland Park High School basketball team. John was passionately devoted to Highland Park and the high school, because the community was a “home, not just a residence,” he said. When 13-year-old John and his mother moved to Highland Park, he felt that he “belonged” and found a sense of permanence that he never experienced as a child. After his father’s death years earlier (he never knew his dad), his mother worked through her grief by staying on the move – living in several different places until she landed in Highland Park.
When in high school, John’s participation on the basketball team cemented his attachment to the community. On March 9, 1987, in his senior year of high school, two rival New Jersey high schools – Highland Park and New Brunswick – battled it out in 1987 for the Group I Basketball Championship. The five-time defending champs hailed from the inner city of New Brunswick, while their opponents came from Highland Park, the tiny borough on the other side of the Raritan River. Most expected New Brunswick to overpower Highland Park, but with only moments left, the Highland Park underdogs led by one point. And then came Cassius. An unknown freshman named Cassius Hargrove buried a last second shot and claimed the title for New Brunswick.
Twenty-seven years later, filmmaker and self-described basketball junkie John Hulme still can feel the game-winning, last-second shot, passing by his fingers. He still recalls “crying like I never had cried before.” Although still haunted by the loss, the more mature John decided to tackle his emotions in a productive way – through his art. He was able to get beyond his own personal emotions and deal with real societal problems – the racial, religious and class issues that simmered below the surface of the game. He confronted his hometown’s reputation for racial profiling, as well as how New Brunswick’s mostly African-American fans mocked Highland Park’s heavily Jewish population during the game.
In the process of tracking down the participants in the game, he discovered that Highland Park’s star player, Joel Miller, had been stabbed on the day of the game, an incident that was kept a secret for over two decades. John attempted to solve that mystery, and most of all, tried to find out what ever happened to his own basketball boogeyman, Cassius Hargrove, who vanished from New Jersey years ago – and resurfaced in South Florida.
Blood, Sweat & Tears: A Basketball Exorcism uses a personal journey to touch on universal themes. “Everyone has something painful their past they wish they could go back and change. Maybe I can’t rewind the game-tape and block that fateful shot, but this journey has given me the chance to write a new ending to the story. And as particularly evident during the current election season when politicians and media are screaming about our insurmountable differences, this film attempts to say just the opposite. Conversation about race is so toxic and depressing. I felt the need to tell a different story.”
The Oct. 22nd screening of the film was a fundraiser for the Highland Park African-American History Project, inspired by the research John did for his film. A multimedia effort to capture and preserve one of the bedrocks of the Highland Park community, this project is designed to expose students to all aspects of digital storytelling, from film and video to audio podcasting and personal, web-based narratives. It has already received an incubation grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, allowing the instructors to offer professional-quality training in the following arenas:
Ethnographic and historical research Acquisition of secondary content (photographs, home movies, letters, etc.) Crafting questions and conducting interviews Video production (lighting, camerawork, sound, etc.). Digital postproduction (audio/video editing, music, sound design, etc.) Writing of treatments, synopses and promotional materials Creating a short film for festival submission Digital archive of the history of Highland Park’s African American community
According to John, students will be given real experience in the field, entering people’s lives and communicating on a face-to-face, human level. This community-based learning offers invaluable opportunities for personal and academic growth, as well as the chance to interact with individuals they may have never met otherwise. African-American students in particular will learn and maintain an integral component of their heritage. “This is particularly timely because many of the keepers of the oral tradition have recently passed away. Many more are in declining health, and this may be the last chance to record their memories before it’s too late.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan, John found success in a wide variety of jobs, including envelope stuffer, professional movie extra, and independent blood delivery contractor. But after a fortuitous reunion with Michael Wexler —his high-school soccer and tennis teammate — he decided to walk away from those lucrative careers and pursue the traditionally stable path of writer/filmmaker.
Michael and John co-created a host of projects in various media, including VANISHING POINT, an episodic radio drama broadcast on National Public Radio and XM Radio’s “Sonic Theater,” which they later adapted into an online role-playing game for Microsoft. They co-authored five books together, most recently THE SEEMS: a trilogy of kids’ fantasy novels from Bloomsbury Children Books. They also wrote “The Seems” screenplay adaptation for 20th Century Fox.
John’s first-feature length project, UNKNOWN SOLDIER: SEARCHING FOR A FATHER — a documentary about his quest to know his father, who was killed in Vietnam before we ever had the chance to meet – premiered on HBO’s “America Undercover” in 2005, he started working on BLOOD, SWEAT & TEARS: A BASKETBALL EXORCISM and NO SUCH THING, a feature-length horror film inspired by a series of recurring nightmares that John had as a child – and returned after the birth of his own children. Filmmaking “is the only way I can think of to make them go away,” said the filmmaker who lives in Highland Park with his wife Jennifer Altman and their two children, Jack, 12 years old, and eight-year-old Maddie.