It’s been quite a while, but welcome back to Bold As Love’s feature column “Yes! No!! Why?!?” where we highlight trailers and concepts of both upcoming and little-known older films starring or made by Black talent and contrast them with ones with similar vibes, or ones we’d rather forget.
With the 2015 NBA Finals currently happening, and the ongoing anticipation that the long-awaited biopic of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the first Black player of the NBA, will go into production this year with Wood Harris as the lead, we felt it would be the ideal time for a focus on basketball films. And there are a lot of them.
As “Yes! No!! Why?!?” traditionally highlights lesser-known fare, some of the obvious films like Love & Basketball, Hoop Dreams, Blue Chips, He Got Game, or even Cornbread, Earl & Me (“They killed Cornbread!) will not be highlighted, but we’ll still bless you with some goodies.
ABOVE THE RIM (1994)
The 1990’s resurrected the ‘hood film and the direness within. These films, often paired with the higher success of the hip-hop and basketball superstars with Michael Jordan becoming the biggest star in the world right behind (or to some, lockstep alongside) singer Michael Jackson, I’m sure the Hollywood execs had to say, “Why not combine basketball, hip-hop, and hood drama’s travails with drugs and poverty all into one?” (not an actual quote, but you get the gist). Those sensibilities in mind spawned Above The Rim, with a story by Benny Medina, the inspiration behind and Executive Producer of 1990’s hit sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” and directed by that show’s producer & writer Jeff Pollack, who would go onto direct Booty Call (1997) and Lost & Found (1999).
Starring Duane Martin in his first starring role, Above The Rim, is about a promising high school basketball star, and his relationships with Birdie (world-famous rapper/actor Tupac Shakur in the middle of his prime), a powerful drug dealer, and Birdie’s brother, Thomas ‘Shep’ Sheppard (Leon, fresh off big co-starring roles in The Five Heartbeats and Cool Runnings), himself once a promising high school star at Kyle’s school, now employed as a security guard. Marlon Wayans, Tonya Pinkins, Bernie Mac, and the aforementioned Wood Harris (who plays basketball players in multiple films), in his feature film debut, also co-star.
Full of heavy hip-hop beats, street drama pathos, and some fantastic basketball playing thanks to Martin and Leon having played college basketball (Martin was actually drafted by the New York Knicks), the trailer doesn’t really stand the test of time as well as the film does. Still, at the time, this movie went over well, earning over $16 million in domestic box office – almost five times its budget. Indeed, the triple combo of basketball, hip-hop, and ‘hood films was a huge move, as was having established and growing star talent within. Yet, the trailer is a bit incomprehensible, revealing that “the hardest part of winning is choosing sides,” whatever that means, in its tagline.
Judge for yourself though as I give it a tepid “YES!”
HEAVEN IS A PLAYGROUND (1991)
Even heavier on the hood drama scale than Above The Rim is this film from Randall Fried. Heaven Is a Playground was loosely based on the book of the same name by Rick Telander. In it Telander, at the time for Sports Illustrated, profiled the most notorious basketball player in the country, James “Fly” Williams, who hailed from Brownsville, Brooklyn – one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. Entranced with Williams’ story, the author returns to the neighborhood in the summer of 1974 to coach a team of talented yet troubled players under the tutelage of a local talent scout who is training the young men to get their skills up to professional levels as a way out of “the ghetto.”
The film version switches this story to the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, with actor D.B. Sweeney playing a version of Telander (now named Zack) with severely underrated actor Michael Warren (“Hill Street Blues”) as the talent scout, Byron Harper. But much more noteworthy is that Fried had MICHAEL JORDAN attached to play the lead role of Matthew Lockhart, the promising young talent that Telander and Harper work to build to prominence. Yes, that Michael Jordan (hence the caps) who in ’86 was just a burgeoning talent. Unfortunately, by time financing was secured in 1990, Jordan was becoming an international superstar athlete and backed out of this little indie film project.
The Lockhart role went to another then-famous ‘ball player, Bo Kimble. The recent NBA inductee was best known for leading the 11th-seeded Loyola Marymount University basketball team on a run to the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament in the 1989–90 season, following the tragic on-court death of teammate and close friend Hank Gathers. And the results, well, you judge for yourself after viewing the trailer.
My perspective is mixed. The trailer makes the film look truly dour (it is), and goes full tilt into the “po’ Black ghetto chile” routine as it shifts the action from Brooklyn to Chicago. It comes off extremely exploitative with Sweeney being the white savior for these boys who probably learns a lesson in humanity by the end, but looks to be rich off of them regardless – a trope repeated in American film, pop culture, and athletics that would be repeated in future films such as 1994’s The Air Up There, 2009’s The Blind Side, and so many others. And if the research is fully sound, despite his corny starring role in the mostly-animated 1996 Looney Toons film Space Jam, Jordan was turning into quite the actor, so the film could have been saved by his performance. But Kimble’s acting, despite great effort, is sadly more wooden than all the trees in Redwood National Park.
So for me, Heaven Is a Playground gets a NO!!
The film also starred Victor Love (Native Son) as Truth Harrison, the foil for Matthew Lockhart, with supporting roles for then NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon and then-new NBA player Kendall Gill. Though not covered here, the next year Love would go onto play Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble’s best friend, in the made-for-television movie of Gathers’ life, Final Shot: The Hank Gathers Story. Full disclosure: that’s one of my favorite all-time TV and basketball movies.
This movie can be seen as cute, and even endearing, but from a socio-economic point of view, and frankly from a common sense one, 2012’s Thunderstruck is wrong on innumerable levels.
In the film, non-athletic 16-year old Brian (Taylor Gray) dreams of joining the basketball team, but is too klutzy to gain any true talent. A chance meeting with his favorite hometown basketball player, Oklahoma City Thunder player, and NBA superstar, Kevin Durant, results in a magical switch of skill levels. Ergo, Durant is now a klutz and Brian displays star-level basketball talent. And as you can see from the trailer, hijinks ensue. How cute, right? Watch it now, and get back to me.
Without insight, this does seem like an innocent little film. Yet it acts as another example of how repeatedly white culture appropriates Black skills and culture as in this instance, the young white child literally rips away the skills of this Black man, however accidentally. On a deeper level, he is also stealing this Black man’s legacy, as Europeans did (and continue to do) for centuries on the African continent and throughout the diaspora. Like Heaven Is a Playground, and the other films mentioned in that film’s analysis above, the life lessons young Brian learns through this Black man seem to eventually endow him with the will to be a better person and basketball player. Ho-hum.
While it practically acts as an advertisement for Durant and his team, I can see (though not forgive) his choices for doing this insipid seeming film. Yet, it’s hard to believe this film actually played in the movie theaters! It also played on about 250 screens, though only for one week. For perspective’s sake, that’s 226 more movie screens than the 2011 hit independent film Pariah did (though for that one week Thunderstruck did earn over $500,000, according to Box Office Mojo.
If it isn’t obvious, I give this film a NO!! and a WHY?!?
Later this week, look out for part II of Yes! No!! Why?!? – Film Trailers in Review: They’re Playing Bas-ket-baallll…