Tribeca, with its ear to the ground, recognized that other festivals didn't take the sports documentary – or jockumentary--seriously. With support from ESPN and others Tribeca has seized the opportunity. The sports docs are now at the core of the Tribeca program.
“Lenny Cooke” is one of them. This much-awaited doc by the Safdie brothers (nephews of the Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie) takes us to a familiar story. But this specific sad journey from potential to present will get under your skin.
Cooke, a prodigiously promising kid from New York who came up with skills comparable to those of LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony (two of the top NBA players today) is now overweight and way over the hill. He looks like an athlete might be expected to look when he’s fat, rich and 50. But Cooke just turned 31 on April 29.
It wasn’t drugs or women that did Lenny in, although he did have his first child when he was in high school. No, Lenny just thought he was smarter than everyone else. When he decided to go “hardship” – which meant going pro and cashing in, and he didn’t get picked in that year’s draft, he believed the pitch (and $300,000) that an agent gave him, and the bet didn’t pay off. No team in the US wanted him, and he began a common journey which involves playing with foreign teams and finally returning to the US with a minor league basketball job, and on to anonymity. Meanwhile, Anthony and James are the top names in basketball.
If Cooke didn’t see it coming, many coaches did, and they speak of college and pro sports in the doc as if these practices are slavery. It’s not just the fault of greedy exploiters. Kids with talent don’t believe that getting an education will get them any farther than getting a new Cadillac with a signing bonus. Of course, as we learn in “Lenny Cooke” (more than twenty years after “Hoop Dreams”), you’re more likely to win the lottery than to get a signing bonus. The movie supplies an update on the story of sports exploitation.
Cooke showed up for the premiere of the doc, smiling mournfully as he looks back at the career that never was.
Muhammad Ali saw what was happening to him when the US government tried to draft him and then prosecuted him for resisting. In the “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” doc that premiered at Tribeca, lots of archival footage takes us back to a time when an athlete spoke to truth in a way that few athletes would dare today. (Maybe gay athletes are beginning to do that now. I’m sure that we’ll have some docs on that subject soon.)
In “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” directed by Bill Siegel (a colleague of the “Hoop Dreams” team) we watch as Ali turns to the Black Muslims, going so far as to condemn Malcolm X (whom the Muslims murdered), and we follow him into a dispute over the draft and religious opposition to a particular war that deprived him of his title and almost landed him in jail.
Despite that rich archival dimension, the film is a martyrology of the sort that we have come to expect in films about Ali. Why don’t more athletes choose to be political? Because they have seen how athletes who speak out have been punished.
In the other field in which some African-Americans were allowed to be successful, show business, Richard Pryor was known to speak his mind. As it did in the case of Muhammad Ali, the archival footage in “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” gives you a case history that you don’t see today. See the doc by Marina Zenovich for that rich historical texture and for the volcanic wildness of Pryor live.
It’s a happy coincidence that William Friedkin, now touring with his book (“The Friedkin Connection”) and with the restored resurrection of “Sorcerers,” produced the Academy Awards of 1977. The first person to speak in that telecast was Richard Pryor, who declared: “No black person ever won no award for nuthin.” Pryor had originally planned to begin his statement with the N-word. “Go ahead, Richard, you’re known for that,” Friedkin recalls telling him. At the last minute, Friedkin says, Pryor decided against it. He had a career to protect. See the film when it comes to HBO for Pryor’s scorching honesty, and for a television interview with the plain-spoken grandmother who raised him in the St. Louis pool hall that she operated. The scene has the same kind of poignancy that you found in an interview with Stokely Carmichael and his mother in “The Black Power Mixtape.” Whatever you think of Carmichael or Pryor’s politics, you can’t deny their humanity.