To think Colin Kaepernick is the first or only black athlete to speak out for civil rights is a failure of cultural memory. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback ignited a movement in 2016 when he refused to stand for the national anthem during games, goading our president into condemning other players who followed suit and even prompting the NFL to fine teams for their kneeling players. With Showtime’s informative but unfocused three-part docuseries Shut Up and Dribble, executive producer LeBron James and sports documentarian Gotham Chopra elucidate basketball’s racial and sociopolitical influence on American culture since professional leagues started recruiting black players 70 years ago. However, given today’s relentless political maelstrom and that we’re long past basketball’s 1990s heyday, the serial feels more akin to a chalky afterthought than a rousing moment — a “Hey, we count, too!” response to football’s current political prominence.
The title derives from a media segment during which Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham scolded James for publicly commenting on politics, a move she considered inappropriate for a professional athlete. “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball. As someone once said… ‘Shut up and dribble.'” There’s no question her rebuke was a coded way of telling a black man to stay in his place — she all but used the word “uppity” to make her point. Her phrase is such a harsh reproach because it doesn’t just evoke simply advancing the ball up and down the court, but also mindless drooling. We want our athletes to be machines and powerhouses, their bodies to vicariously fulfill our desires for physical supremacy. We accept their brawn, not their brains. As narrator Jemele Hill states in the first few moments of the doc, “In America, black athletes were supposed to be the workers, not the owners. They were supposed to be the talent, not the power brokers.”
Broken into three loosely themed one-hour episodes, Shut and Up Dribble chugs along chronologically. The first part, the best of the three, takes a lens to the Civil Rights era of basketball: Beginning in the 1950s when black players forever changed the sport’s pacing and strategizing, the narrative moves forward in time through the successes, controversies and political stances of all-time greats like Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (“People screamed the N-word like it was eating popcorn. It wasn’t, like, a big surprise if someone yelled n—er at you.”) The second episode homes in on the idea of authenticity and how players in the 1980s and 1990s built their personas — from tight-lipped, squeaky-clean corporate shill Michael Jordan to rough-around-the-edges, hip-hop-influenced Allen Iverson. The final episode explores how players, including James, have responded to the racially motivated tragedies and political upheavals of the aughts. (“Don’t scare the white people” became an unfortunate mantra in the field after the infamous Pacers-Pistons “Malice at the Palace” brawl in 2004.)
Chopra (30 for 30) provides plenty of footage across time and a great sense of the gossipy “he said/he said” sniping of each era, but he glides along from topic to topic so swiftly and fluidly you never get a complete sense of the significance of each event. He places strong emphasis on the perspectives of former and current players, sports journalists, NBA execs and celebrity fans (such as Billy Crystal and Jay-Z), but never depicts how basketball’s biggest moments affected everyday fans outside the cabal of professional sports — the very people who might matter most when it comes to sports culture. The doc criticizes the balance of power in basketball, especially in relation to race, but everyone interviewed here is high-profile in their respective industries.
Somewhat light on analysis, don’t go into Shut Up and Dribble expecting to find out what is particularly special about basketball or why it appears to foment unrest. (“Basketball is part of the oral tradition,” says one commentator, describing the smack-talk culture of street games. I wanted more of that.) Running three hours, I’d like to say the series is, at least, comprehensive in its history, but the filmmakers basically ignore basketball’s more obvious iconoclasts and fallen heroes. (They have little to nothing to say about Dennis Rodman or even Kobe Bryant — the latter of which, given his famous sexual assault case, is a myopic omission when it comes to dissecting the social and political influences of the sport.)
Structurally, Shut Up and Dribble really needed to be six to eight episodes to get a more complete scope of the topic or, better yet, could have been a feature-length film with a more tightened vision. Chopra cares greatly to show us the career accomplishments of athletes who stayed politically neutral/silent versus the professional failures of those who exercised their rights to free speech and self-expression. Just don’t underwhelm the bored people.
Executive producers: LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Rich Paul, Martin Desmond Roe, Chris Uetwiller, Datari Turner, Gotham Chopra
Director: Gotham Chopra
Premieres: Saturday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)