'Warriors of Liberty City': TV Review

A worthy addition to TV's vast assortment of football-based programming.
9/16/2018

Produced by LeBron James, Starz's look at youth football in a rough Miami neighborhood is a solidly made complement to the network's tremendous 'America to Me.'

For proof that football is America's most beloved sport, you need look no further than unscripted television, where it's hard to find any aspect of the gridiron experience that isn't currently being documented by a camera-wielding team.

If you're spending your Fridays on high school football, your Saturdays watching college football and your Sundays with the NFL, that leaves the rest of the week to catch up with the diminutive, pad-wearing juveniles of Friday Night Tykes or Coach Snoop, the up-and-coming pass-throwers of QB1, the junior college desperation of Last Chance U and the messy professional drama of Hard Knocks and All or Nothing. Watch enough of these shows in a short window and it can become a disorienting miasma of obscenity-spewing coaches, parents living out their own thwarted dreams, hotshot quarterbacks, high-kicking cheerleaders and game-saving Hail Marys.

Even basketball guys can't resist.

Premiering Sunday on Starz, Warriors of Liberty City comes from executive producers LeBron James and Maverick Carter — RIP, Survivor's Remorse — and it could actually get away with disingenuously claiming not to be about football at all. Sure, it's entirely about football, but at its best Warriors of Liberty City has more in common with the urban sociology of its tremendous Starz colleague America to Me, offering an alternating sad and inspiring look at the struggles and aspirations of families for whom the American Dream, and the hope of escaping a bad neighborhood, is best realized through sports.

Primarily African-American and largely lower income, the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami has a reputation as the birthplace for a disproportionate number of high-profile football players including Chad "Ochocinco" Johnson, Willis McGahee and Devonta Freeman. Serving as a pipeline and a refuge is the Warriors community sports program co-founded by 2 Live Crew frontman Luther Campbell. The program includes basketball, baseball and soccer, plus cheerleading and volleyball for girls, but its major engine is an escalating ladder of football teams divided by weight class and serving boys between the ages of 4 and 13.

Campbell, whom everybody calls Uncle Luther, starts the series with a tour around Liberty City, and several NFL veterans share their own experiences and offer chilling "There but for the grace of the Warriors…" speculation on the life crossroads they faced in the nieghborhood, with football keeping them away from gangs and violence. This beginning approach is the 30 for 30 version of the story, which makes sense since creator-director Evan Rosenfeld and director Andrew Cohn come from a 30 for 30 background. Warriors of Liberty City is a better series for swiftly moving past its "Here are famous people who got out" perspective, yet it's also invariably at the mercy of certain limitations.

While one assumes that there are many doors that the name "LeBron James" opens, Warriors of Liberty City doesn't have quite the far-reaching access that Steve James and his team got for the high school at the center of America to Me, nor are any of the interwoven stories perfectly cast. One plotline might have a great coach, but no players or parents worth following. Another might have standout parents without a team arc to speak of. Even a story that looked perfect on paper, going exactly where the filmmakers hoped it would go, can only be as good as the featured characters.

I can see, for example, why Chatarius "Tutu" Atwell, Jr. was interesting to the filmmakers. A high school senior at local Miami Northwestern and a veteran of the Liberty City youth program, the undersized, thrillingly athletic Tutu is easy to cheer for. The entire community rallies behind Miami Northwestern and Tutu. You sense that Rosenfeld and Cohn would love to do the same. It's just disappointing that Tutu is guarded as a personality and none of the people around him prove to be sufficiently dynamic. When that storyline vanishes for long stretches, you don't miss it.

On the other hand, 13-year-old Destiny Martinez is a star, a pre-existing star with a robust Instagram follower count that shows that the directors were not ahead of the curve in finding her. Destiny is smart and driven, and her cautionary experiences with social media popularity are freshly depicted. She also has a father dedicated to coaching and teaching her, recognizing that she could have a life he had to set aside. The problem is that the directors want to focus on football, and although Destiny's dance team is exceptional in its own right, she doesn't feel like she's on the same show as the male characters, and the community's very conventional and entrenched gender norms aren't something the directors want to poke at. Destiny's contemporaries on the 155-pound football team are a little interchangeable and their part of the story is dominated by Herbert Ritchie, an excitable first-time coach whose profane motivational rants are foul enough that a series that should be a teachable tool for all ages will come with content warnings.

Several of the show's best stories come from the Boom Squad, a team facing startlingly high expectations given that they're mostly 9-year-olds. Accepting that asking a third grader for introspection might be a high bar, the directors keep their attentions mostly on the older figures and, at times, Lavalrick "Dread" Lucas, Sr. becomes the series' best character. Prone to getting drunk on the sideline or smoke weed in public, Dread boasts equally of his long rap sheet and his post-prison redemption, determined to be a better father figure for Dread Jr. than he had himself. It's a reasonable goal and yet also a struggle, especially when the impact of Hurricane Irma makes life even harder for a family that already starts the series sleeping six in a tiny project apartment.

Some episodes adopt a countdown-to-the-big-game structure that's practically standard for the genre, and those rarely have the strongest momentum. Dealing with pint-sized athletes, the editors can't always count on a recognizable child scoring the winning touchdown or making a key defensive play or on games not ending with an ungainly, action-defying 2-0 final score. What the show does more effectively is build hours around themes common to the relationships of what are most frequently fathers and sons. "Football" is the series' pre-determined solution for much of what ails the community, but the show is put together so that audiences can recognize that the lessons applicable to football will help the kids in life, even if nobody here wants to allow for the possibility that a career in The League isn't a birthright.

Certainly the lack of clear escape alternatives is chilling, accompanied by the frequent background din of sirens and helicopters, all playing over cinematography from Ryan Nethery that resists making poverty look glamorous, even if it sometimes tip-toes around an aesthetic that would have been more at home in a 2 Live Crew music video from the '90s.

There's a deeper cultural dig that Warriors of Liberty City could be doing, one on display in America to Me, talking in more depth about economic opportunities, the traps of race-based assumptions, community-police relations, a biased criminal justice system and more. Maybe and hopefully the pairing of this often very good show with that often great show will cause viewers wooed by the football hook of Warriors of Liberty City to also watch its Starz partner, or vice versa.

Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Starz)