A new two-part Muhammad Ali biopic titled, What's My Name, is one of many upcoming sports documentaries debuting this year.
Welcome back to SCREENSHOTS, a weekly report from the intersection of sports, media, and the Internet.
Almost three years since Muhammad Ali died, a two-part documentary, What's My Name, debuting May 14 on HBO, brings back the iconic fighter's voice. Relying solely on archival footage, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) retells Ali's story—from his success as a young amateur through his postcareer health struggles—almost exclusively by using clips of Ali talking, essentially narrating his own life.
The loquacious champ, of course, is perfectly suited for this approach. As Malcolm X says at one point in the film, "Ali is probably more capable of speaking for himself than any man in this country." And the result feels appropriate in this era of empowered athletes, who've grown accustomed to sharing their thoughts, unfiltered, with the world. "Muhammad Ali transcended sports in a way the world had never seen before," co-executive producer LeBron James says. "He showed us all the courage and conviction it takes to stand up for what you believe in."
Indeed, the most inspiring moments come early on, as Ali struggles to be recognized by his chosen name. (The documentary's title comes from Ali's repeated taunting of Ernie Terrell during their 1967 bout after Terrell continued to use Ali's "slave name," Cassius Clay.) In those days, and later in his protest against the Vietnam War, viewers see a black celebrity fighting against an establishment trying to control his message. "It's about a man who stood up for his principles, fought for what was right, paid for it, was willing to die for it, suffer for it, and never wavered, never blinked," Fuqua says. “I want people to walk away going, What are they going to say about me at the end?”
“As far as athletes today,” Fuqua continues, “I want them to be able to look and see the great position they are in to leave an amazing legacy, to help other people, to challenge themselves and then maybe they’ll be considered the greatest…. I think LeBron is on the path for sure.”
But the cinema verité setup also leaves an incomplete picture at times. Without commentary or present-day interviews, it's impossible to know what Ali was like away from the cameras. His four marriages and financial struggles are largely glossed over. “It’s nothing bad… I just thought that’s so personal,” Fuqua says. “I believe we are all allowed some privacy.”
The film's second half opens immediately after Ali's first loss, in 1971, to Joe Frazier in the Fight of the Century. Three years later he reclaimed his title with wins over Frazier and George Foreman. Original music featuring percussion and horns brings new life to the boxing sequences, but there's little time to celebrate Ali's triumphs, particularly knowing the physical punishment that accompanied them. The sport "was hell," he says, and it only got worse during a career-ending 1-3 stretch. After handing over the mic to one of history's best talkers in the beginning, the film is forced to use subtitles as Parkinson's takes its toll later on in the doc.
At its core, What's My Name is a celebration of Ali's voice. Beyond gaining celebrity and selling fights, he spread messages that only became more powerful with time. We’ll never see The Greatest fight again, but his words still pack a punch. As Ali once wrote,
Life of truth is eternal,
Immortal is its past,
Power of truth will endure,
Truth shall hold to the last.
Here are a few other upcoming sports documentaries worth keeping an eye on:
Charlie’s Records: Six-time WNBA All Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Tina Charles never thought of herself as a potential filmmaker. Feeling someone needed to tell her father’s story, she first went to Spike Lee, but the legendary director told her, You need to do this. You’re the only one who has the passion to tell it the correct way. Charles was up for the challenge. For over a year, she learned about her dad, Rawlston Charles, who immigrated from Tobago in 1967 and started a record store as well as a music label built around the music of his homeland, Calypso and Soca tunes. “He lived the ultimate American dream,” Tina said. Her work, titled Charlie’s Records, premieres Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Initially, she looked for other documentaries on the music genre’s history, but finding none, realized her project could have an impact beyond honoring Rawlston. “I was doing something for the culture,” she said. “I was picking up the mantle from him and carrying it further.” That kept her motivated as she invested over a year’s worth of her WNBA salary and balanced the demands of professional athletics with her creative endeavor, jetting from practice to interview to game. “I purposely wanted to do this film while I was actively playing,” she said. “I wanted to show there are many layers to us female athletes.”
A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s cheerleader problem is the subject of the film, A Woman’s Work, which highlights two cheerleaders’ fight for fair pay through the court of law and by trying to change public opinion. But the documentary wants to say a lot more than that, too. “I think sometimes as storytellers, we’re pressured to simplify our stories into one narrative arc,” director Yu Gu told Jezebel. “Like, okay what is your film about, it’s about this lawsuit. Okay, show me the lawsuit, the legal proceedings. But that’s not what I wanted to do. These are full human beings, these are women who have their own unique struggles. Women are plural; we’re not singular. We have so many layers and levels we want to be recognized for.”
“I think the only way we can try and shift culture is to present something that is a different set of values,” she added. “We don’t want to insert ourselves into the existing hierarchy, we don’t want to climb that hierarchy. That is f----- up, we want to do something else.”
Dominican Dream: Available now in the ESPN app, the network’s latest 30 for 30, Dominican Dream, tells the story of high school basketball phenom (and SI cover athlete) Luis Felipe Lopez. SI’s Luis Miguel Echegaray called the film “powerful, poetically-directed … an immigrant tale, a personal victory camouflaged as a failed basketball career.”
At the Heart of Gold: Beyond making your gut churn with devastating victim interviews, director Erin Lee Carr lays out how systemic failures allowed Larry Nassar to abuse over 100 girls and young women. The painful, important documentary, At the Heart of Gold, airs Friday on HBO.
Diego Maradona: A “much-anticipated” Diego Maradona biopic has just been picked up by HBO for a September release. With AT&T set to show off a streaming service centered around HBO this fall, it sure feels like the company is rededicating itself to being a go-to sports storytelling source.
Maiden: Coming in June, Sony Pictures Classic and director Alex Holmes will present Maiden, tracing the success of an all-female sailing crew in the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race. For now, a short preview:
ESPN Announces 2019 Monday Night Football Booth
With Jason Witten a Cowboy again, ESPN is entrusting his former colleagues—play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore, analyst Booger McFarland, and reporter Lisa Salters—to cover MNF rather than starting from scratch with the production. The company had previously discussed the role with Peyton Manning.
Following a strong draft weekend, McFarland will return to a more traditional booth position alongside Tessitore, where he should be better able to connect with fans. A major reason why the former defensive tackle got the job last year—and this offseason got something of a promotion—is his perceived likability factor. Now he’ll be judged on his ability to reinvigorate MNF’s reputation while developing the authoritative voice his premier Sunday peers have established.
“We have an unbelievable stable of analysts and we considered several of them last year. But we really like these guys as an entity and did not get off of that,” executive vice president of event and studio production Stephanie Druley explained to Richard Deitsch of The Athletic, adding that, “Our hope and expectation is that this is a decision we won’t be remaking.”
“We are very confident in Joe and Booger as our team in the booth,” ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro told The Washington Post via text. “They have a strong relationship, they’re authentic and enthusiastic. They both progressed last season and now they have this weekly platform to develop and grow together."
• Twitter announced its 2019 slate of sports programming, which now includes deals with the NFL, NBA, MLB, and ESPN.
• From FEMA to Harvard to the Spurs and now at ESPN, NBA map analyst Kirk Goldsberry charted his winding course to sports media with The Washington Post’s Ben Strauss.
• Andrew Bucholtz dove into the Champions League ratings numbers.
• A new fan study explains a generation of “fluid fans” who follow players and cheer for their values.
• NFL games will stream inside the Yahoo Fantasy Football app in 2019.
• TikTok has sucked in teens; sports brands are now following.
• Flash news flash: Dwyane Wade seems to be headed to an NBA studio show near you.
• In addition to joining the Cardinals, Kyler Murray has signed a deal with Uninterrupted to create social content as well as a feature-length documentary.
• Mike Golic had surprisingly strong words regarding Tyreek Hill and the NFL’s handling of that terrible situation.
THANK YOU, INTERNET…
...for a 2019 love story, featuring ducks and peas.