Given where I work, I have inherent biases about Sports Illustrated projects. So read this short piece knowing that I’m not an independent observer here.
On Wednesday night I attended the premiere of “89 Blocks,” an 86-minute documentary film which chronicles the East St. Louis (Ill.) High Football team during its championship-winning 2016 season. SI’s Dan Greene wrote about the team, who play in a city with the nation's highest per capita murder rate and 43.5% of its 26,922 residents living below the poverty line. The film is part of a new Fox Sports Films documentary series called “Magnify,” which Fox Sports hopes becomes their version of ESPN’s 30 for 30. It was executive produced by Sports Illustrated along with LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s Uninterrupted company. The film will premiere on Sunday, Nov. 26 on Fox at 4:00 p.m. ET. The title (89 Blocks) is a nickname used by East St. Louisans to describe the area of the city.
The doc is one of the best projects in SI history, a truly terrific piece of filmmaking—emotional and honest about the daily struggle the East St. Louis players face amid the crime and poverty around them. The center of the story is a remarkable coach, Darren Sunkett, who issues life lessons amid tough love. Sunkett must juggle teenage players with parental responsibilities as well as a star player who will not commit in full to the team. SI contracted ImagineMotion Productions—led by directors Alex Agnant and Joe Ward—to attend every practice and every game during the season and the film was shot in observational cinema style with no narrator—the cameras follow the kids and coaches everywhere, from police ride-alongs to players throwing up during training to Sunkett calling out players for failing to keep up with academics. I work with the director of the film, Josh Oshinsky, who is the executive producer of Time Inc. Sports. Same with the editors of the film, Lee Feiner and Nolan Thomas.
“We wanted to tell an authentic story about East St. Louis and to that we knew we needed to embed,” Oshinsky said. “There is a lot of sensationalizing around stories about East St. Louis. If you look on YouTube that is really all you see. We wanted to humanize and not sensationalize.”
Fox Sports said it has one other film ready as part of its Magnify series. “Shot In The Dark” will air next February and is executive produced by Dwyane Wade and Chance the Rapper. That film follows the Chicago-based Orr Academy’s high school basketball team. Gabe Spitzer, the executive producer for Fox Sports Films, said they hope to be “an outlet for creators to highlight stories that speak to their personal journeys in an open and engaging forum.”