For his debut feature, Crossing the Line, documentary filmmaker David Tryhorn looks at the rise, fall, and personal redemption of U.S. hurdler Danny Harris. One of the biggest stars during track and field’s most popular boom period in the 1980s and ’90s, Harris, who was born and raised in Compton, won a silver medal in the 400m hurdles at the 1984 Olympics, an act that pegged the eighteen-year-old as the heir apparent to the seemingly unstoppable gold medalist that year, Edwin Moses. In 1987, Harris’ star would rise further when the younger athlete would shatter Moses’ impressive 122 race unbeaten streak. But the very next year, a heartbreaking photo-finish would find Harris unable to qualify for the 1988 Olympics. Then, his battles with crack cocaine addiction would come to light, and lead to an initial four year ban from competition (two years more than an athlete gets for using performance enhancing drugs) and later a lifetime ban. Harris spiralled into cycles of addiction, recovery, and relapse throughout the ’90s, and when things looked like they couldn’t get any worse, he was arrested and wrongfully imprisoned for the kidnapping of a 75-year-old woman in 2004.
Crossing the Line has a lot of ground to cover, and Tryhorn attempts to do so in the shortest amount of time. In order to understand just how far Harris fell when he was in the prime of his career, Tryhorn has the unenviable task of outlining just how popular track and field was during the 1980s. The first third of the film is just as much about the history of the sport as it is about Harris, and one fears initially that the hurdler might be a side player in his own story, but the film remains enjoyable and captivating thanks to Harris’ boldfaced openness and empathetic interviews with some of his peers and rivals.
What emerges once all the history is out of the way is a portrait of a man that no one wanted to give up on, even when Harris was ready to give up on himself. Instead of a bunch of talking heads lamenting all of Harris’ poor decisions, a community of dedicated friends and concerned colleagues tries to pick him up from the depths of despair. It refreshingly runs counter to most addiction narratives that are built around famous figures. Crossing the Line has a remarkable amount of positivity to be found within the darkness, but it’s never forced or hammy. Harris seems grateful just to be alive, and Tryhorn does a great job of conveying such thankfulness.