Tag Archives: sports movies

42’s Legacy

By the time Audrey Hepburn had made her Hollywood debut and won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953), Jackie Robinson had played major league baseball for six years with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  When he was inducted into the Baseball of Fame on July 23, 1962, Marilyn Monroe was still alive, James Bond was a few months shy of being introduced to the public as a cinematic icon, and by the end of the year prisoners from the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba went back home to the US.

In case you haven’t guessed, I watched the sports biopic 42 (Brian Helgeland, 2013).  It depicts key moments in Jackie Robinson’s life between 1945 and 1947, though the extent of historical accuracy in the sense of X actually happened in the manner presented is up for disclaimers.  Please see SBNation, History News Network, and ESPN.


The film opens with a historical context reel narrated by Wendell Smith (Andre Holland).  America might have saved the (modern) world from the horrible agendas of the Axis Powers but back home, a hero’s welcome is hard to come by…even harder if you aren’t white.  It is in this existentially fraught environment that Jackie Robinson (a terrific Chadwick Boseman) goes about doing what he was born to do: play baseball.

42 is a beautiful film; it’s wonderful to behold for its subtle humor and cinematography. The acting is excellent all around too (Nicole Beharie is especially impressive as Robinson’s fiancee, and it’s always good to see Christopher Meloni playing someone who isn’t doing detective work in a special victim’s unit).  The wardrobe department and set designers and decorators must have gone to great lengths to imbue the film with a historically authentic mise-en-scene.

Despite its visual splendor, it isn’t the tightest film.  When it ended, I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more effective as a series of vignettes juxtaposed against conversations from scholars, journalists, historians, and any surviving friend or relative of Robinson’s.  (Shameless, unaffiliated plug for the documentary about Jackie Robinson by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon that airs April 11 and 12 9pm and 11pm EST on your local PBS station — check your local listings!).  

As a sports biopic, 42 is formulaic, psychologically powerful without being excessively tense, and eager to fill you with hope.  The contrast between two specific sequences produces an effect that both clobbers and heals the heart.  The first, ugly scene occurs when the Philadelphia Phillies are playing the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Phillies’ coach, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), hurls so many racist remarks at Robinson that one wonders if there will be any reprieve from or retribution for having witnessed it…as a film-goer.**

If you don’t come away from that scene feeling as though you’re ashamed to be in the same “room” as the Phillies coach and want to travel back in time to apologize to Jackie Robinson on behalf of a less bigoted future, then you have achieved satori and there’s nothin’ left to see here.  If, though, you do find it uncomfortable hearing those words and remembering that, “hey, are we any kinder to each other in 2016 than the people of 1947 were to one another?”  (Peut-etre un peu? Pas du tout?), then, you’re going to demand for some kind of pay-back.

As a much needed and pleasantly surprising challenge to that scene is the second, marvelous sequence when the Dodgers play in Cincinnati.  Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) puts his arm around Robinson.  The camera films in a high-angle medium shot as he smiles and you can hear the crowd gasp.***  That unassuming but profound gesture of Pee Wee walking up to Jackie and sharing in the human experience is what the 21st century needs to remember.  You see, isn’t your heart mending already?


And yet… what 42 and the Jesse Owens biopic Race have pushed me to consider is whether or not a person is worth a chance to be welcomed and accepted if a person doesn’t demonstrate a capacity for excellence in the performative, physiological, or intellectual achievements of being human.  Do the best and brightest have to take on the mantle of pathfinder before the lukewarm and decent can even have a place to get a better view?


*Dr. No (Terence Young, 1962), starring Sean Connery, was the first Bond film to be released.

**SB Nation has a good summary of this moment.  And, every time I see Alan Tudyk I think of Steven Weber.

*** Note: According to the Jackie Robinson documentary by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, that gesture was a thing of myth-making; it probably never really happened.  If it did, the press would’ve reported it and surely there’d have been witnesses…still living witnesses.

Southpaw Creed

But first, a short video on rooftop work of the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium.  It reminds me of NFL Films; instead of sports inspirational, it’s steel inspirational.

And now back to your regularly scheduled blog post.

Pit Southpaw (Antoine Fuqua, 2015) against Creed (Aaron Coogler, 2015) and you get a consideration of sacrifice for others vs. sacrifice for self.

wap deerc

Does it go without saying that Southpaw is a redemption narrative?  The story-line necessitates redemption as Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), the protagonist, is getting older and life events force him to push himself to places he may never have taken seriously.  It’s not of a first chance or a second chance, but a recalibration of priorities.  Hope begins the film winning a match to the praise of a very supportive and realistic wife (Rachel McAdams) and proud daughter (a scene-stealing Oona Laurence).  What progresses as a possible sobering self-examination at how much longer he can be a boxer turns into a plea to transcend the status quo of aging as a boxer.  Hope gets into a situation where his actions indirectly lead to his wife’s death and his daughter is placed into social services.  The only way for him to get her back is to demonstrate to the courts, to society, and to himself that the fruits of his athletic labor stand for more than superficial glory.

Kurt Sutter, the screenwriter for Southpaw, said in the making-of-featurette, “You know, there’s two things that should not go together: an adoring father and uncontrollable rage.”  Billy Hope is the embodiment of these two qualities.  He channels rage in the ring to beat his opponents, as any effective boxer would, but then outside of it, he displays undeniable affection and paternal love for his daughter as well as the tendency to retaliate to taunts with violence.  As sports films (and sports in popular media) teach, off-field violence does nobody any good.  At best you’re left with a late night/early morning PR fix and at worst you may be charged with a crime.

In contrast to Gyllenhaal’s light heavyweight champion, Michael B. Jordan‘s Adonis Johnson (Donnie) is a young man journeying to self-identity.  His fists, his athletic talents, and his boxing gifts (honed by Rocky Balboa [Sylvester Stallone] himself) compel him to pursue his bliss out from a career in finance and into the boxing ring.  His demons are rooted in self-doubt and self-preservation and it isn’t until he accepts the legacy of his past that he can triumph.  Creed follows Johnson from childhood to adulthood — a rite of passage narrative spotlighting confidence and humility.

Aesthetically, the boxing sequences in Southpaw, especially the last match, take a lot of cues from televised boxing.  It seeks a verisimilitude of the media text itself.  Professional boxers, analysts, HBO camera crew.  Fuqua wanted that seamless representation of the boxing.  Creed makes similar references through Donnie’s interaction with media and through furthering the plot (the second ‘boxing’ sequence consists of Donnie watching a Creed vs. Rocky fight on YouTube; information about Ricky Conlan is presented through ESPN-esque TV segments; the last boxing sequence/match between Conlan and Creed).

Creed comes from an iconic breed, though, so there is still very much a “filmic” quality to these representations.  I prefer it as a boxing film and a sports inspirational because it’s about Donnie.  He’s doing everything for himself.  His accomplishments carry additional meanings, but he’s still conquering his own pride and vulnerabilities not only to prove his own self-worth (to himself) but also to be free of self-imposed burdens of that worth.  Southpaw is fine as a film; it’s solid in that start-over-again theme .  How Southpaw and Creed differ as boxing films, though, is that the former could be about a different sport.  Gyllenhaal could’ve been a fencer, a runner, a golfer, or even a competitive poker player.



Noteworthy asides

~ Sound editing is very important in boxing films.  The synchronization of the sound and the visuals in boxing sequences is very important.

~ Forest Whitaker portrays Jake Gyllenhaal’s trainer in Southpaw and after a second screening, I see his character as more of a counterpart to Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in Creed.  One of the sports movies tropes is the female love interest that either motivates the protagonist or distracts him and is thus part of narrative conflict.  True, the story-line in Creed as it pertains to Bianca does involve misunderstandings and disagreements that affect Donnie’s boxing, but ultimately, her life circumstances help to propel him forward. Likewise, Forest Whitaker’s character challenges and refines Billy Hope’s path to success.

~ The DVD for Creed contains many deleted scenes, all top-notch quality so they were likely cut much closer to the time of theatrical release.

Formations the Sports Edition

The sports edition of Re-Arranging DVDs.

Faces – close-ups of faces

Foreground – images are the focus of the art (could be any number of objects at any shot scale)

Medium Trios – medium close-ups of people with or without other background/foreground images

Group Shot


Horizontal Halves

Horizontal Bars

A Dash of Necessary Roughness

There comes a time in every man’s life when he learns that the minor heart attack he  thought he had was actually indigestion.  And how lucky a man should be when he can rejoin his Texas State Armadillos in the last game of the season against the Texas Colts.  This man is Coach Ed Gennero (Hector Elizondo), the movie Necessary Roughness.  Yes, I finished watching it today.

I had stopped watching the film after Paul Drake (Scott Bakula) gets into a fight at Billy Bob’s.  I thought that an amount of narrative momentum would be lost, but it wasn’t the case.  A couple of scenes after I picked up where I left off, Kathy Ireland made her appearance and all was well.  She plays Lucy Draper, TSU futboler-turned-gridiron-kicker; and she looks wonderful in uniform.  Out of five game sequences and as many practice scenes, the last game was most memorable not only because of plot significance but also because it reminded me of NFL Films style footage sans slow-motion.

Necessary Roughness isn’t as cohesive as Wild Cats but it’s more fun to watch for some reason.  Maybe it’s the two-liners (“We’re consenting adults,” “So were Bonnie and Clyde”), the random liners (“Your Texas State Marching Band presents their tribute to gun racks and open beverage containers, which is only legal in Texas”), or that Paul Drake’s journalism assignment reads like Cliffnotes of the sports film:

For those who only read the stat sheets, Ed Gennero’s return to coaching with the Texas State Fighting Armadillos was marred by a 65-to-0 shellacking by the visiting Southwest Texas Bobcats at the TSU Stadium on Saturday.  But this…wasn’t about one football game.  It was a test of one man’s ideals.  The Armadillos did the school proud and they did that man proud.  Ed Gennero.  He won because they played.

There’s a romance storyline between Drake and the journalism teacher (Harley Jane Kozak) that I found more entertaining than the football half of the film.

Per the ending credits, Allan Graf–football coordinator extraordinaire–was the second unit director, the stunt coordinator, and the bartender in Billy Bob’s.  Vince Costello was the football technical advisor.  The producers thanked the University of North Texas (and Chancellor Alfred F. Hurley), NFL Films, the University of Kansas, and Southwest Texas State University.

Click here to see images from the film.


Did Atlanta Magazine always have a yearly football edition?  Hmmm.  Their August issue this year includes a story about GSU’s debut football program, Cross Keys football, Herschel Walker, and Conan O’Brien on TBS.  Be sure to get it from your local bookseller or download it for the price of an itunes song.

A few laps, lay-ups, and complete passes and I’m Done

Adam Duerson contemplates the current status of the sports movie in the December 17, 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.

Asking whether or not “the perceived need to appeal to women–and overseas markets [has] doomed the sports flick,” Duerson begins his piece, “Endangered Species,” by remarking that “Will Ferrell! On Figure skates! For better or worse…is how sports movies in the year 2007 will be remembered” (26).

After providing some box office numbers, he wonders, “where are the HoosiersRaging Bulls? and the ” and then adds, “the reality is that it’s not nearly as easy to make a sports movie as it used to be. With movie attendance in the U.S. dropping, the new Hollywood business model relies more heavily on foreign receipts.” The problem with this method is that according to Mark Ciardi, “there’s no foreign [earning] on sports movies” overseas.

In addition to how unenthusiastic other countries are for American sports movies, Duerson argues that “there’s the prevailing notion in Hollywood that women choose which movies couples see together but that only men are drawn to sports films.” Duerson gets veteran sports film marketing man Jeff Freedman to comment on the situation, which is basically that a sports film can only be made if the sport is secondary to thematic and other narrative elements. In other words, “the first thing a studio decides…is to say it’s a love story, or a father-son story.”

He includes an unnamed Hollywood marketing professional’s observation that “if somebody wanted to make Raging Bull today, I don’t know that it could happen” because “it’s too dark.” Duerson’s article then implicitly criticizes Hollywood’s multiplex complex as a limitation to the production and wider distribution of sports films that possess artistic qualities on par with dramas and action films. To get funding or a distribution deal, filmmakers are “plugging away with the same old sports comedy-drama-romance hybrids.” He then cites the Will Ferrell basketball comedy Semi-Pro and George Clooney’s period comedy Leatherheads as 2008’s sports film offerings.

Duerson closes his thoughts by pointing out that independent sports cinema may inspire the critics and are received well at film festivals, but distributors aren’t convinced the general public will buy it.

As a one-page article, Duerson understandably doesn’t have the space to delve deeper into the issues and examples he brings up as indicating the steady decline of the sports film. I’m going to attempt to contextualize or offer some more points to ponder. Duerson’s three concerns are profits, audience, and distribution. Ultimately, though, it’s one issue: money. Whether or not a movie is to be made depends on how much money it could make. Hollywood is a business and has always operated along the paradigm of telling stories the audience will purchase (with or without encouragement from the studios). Artistic innovations and creating the impression or building the mythology that making movies (and any art form for that matter) privileges the art above else is realistically speaking wishful thinking.

The example of Raging Bull as a sports film of quality and not just a guilty pleasure (entertainment) needs a bit more background explanation. Kevin J. Hayes articulates in the introduction of Cambridge Film Handbooks’ edition on the film that “superlatives abound whenever people talk about Raging Bull. Not only is it an exemplary cinematic work, it is also a cultural icon representing a rich cross section of themes, issues, and characters that reflect American culture in ways that typical Hollywood films do not” (1). Wouldn’t you say that the bulk of commercial, mainstream American films today don’t come close in this respect? Hayes later adds, “Raging Bull owes an important debt to the heritage of the boxing film genre” and boxing itself (10).

Culturally, Scorsese’s film was conceived in an atmosphere that allowed it to be brought into the world. Its examination of masculinity, violence, and the notion of loss isn’t what would keep a studio head or a distribution company today from a greenlight. Instead, it’s about the way the entertainment industry has changed post-highspeed internet and DVD. The idea of diversification of markets isn’t new to advertisers. Merchandising of characters in films and books aren’t limited to the movies and the publishing industry. Dialogue and images from a film can be found in all consumer markets (ahem, George Lucas). Cross-stitching the music with the movie industry isn’t new either. Elvis. Frank Sinatra. Louis Armstrong. Barbara Streisand.

The difference now is that the internet is a new medium through which music, moving images, and literature can circulate. The behaviors and the tendencies (and preferences) of the buying public (which is primarily teenagers) is devastatingly significant in determining how to make the most amount of money (over a short or long period of time). If the sports film (as a drama) today can’t narratively or thematically be similar to those of earlier generations for reasons of economy rather than artistry, it’s happening across the board. Outside independent cinema, studios have little motivation to make movies–they want to make franchises (that include video game tie-ends).

And, if you want originality in content and form, you might not find it in a movie theatre. You might have to turn to Youtube or an art gallery.

I don’t think it’s that unfortunate that studio heads have to view sports films as not being sports films. Thematically, they’re about more than whatever sport is involved. These films are about relationships between people, self-discovery, and hope, or, in other cases, defeat. Instead of employing the motif or metaphor of a soldier or an artist, these movies elect the athlete.

Adam Duerson, if you’re reading this entry, when I make my football movie, it should be a sign of better things to come. Mine won’t be a sports romantic comedy.

I’m cognitively wiped out right now. I’ll revisit this post again.

Originally published at Century Fille.