The Spoils of Sport
Straight from sports television’s graphics and ubiquitous runners, Through the Fire: The Sebastian Telfair Story progresses by printed titles that should be, and mostly are, explained in what follows, anyway. Producer-codirector Jonathan Hock’s hundred-three-minute documentary is what it is intended to be, framed for its target audience, in effect a young man’s book on the glories of what moves MTVers and, older and whiter, ESPN freaks. Therein the problem: done by people creating and created by that world, it cannot step back to see the cruel irony of what it portrays. This is not an accusation of cynicism, for the makers as well as the subjects buy into this distortion of what matters in life.
This month is normally slow for films, but a February 10 release at appropriate cinemas in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Portland (Trail Blazers), Oregon, is timed to occupy male doldrums between Stupor Bowl and professional collegians’ March Madness. Two years of shooting and editing finished ten months ago, and no one could foresee the sex scandal at participant and arrogantly self-proclaimed “world’s most famous arena” Madison Square Garden, but then, no one cares, and a high-school girl’s fortuitously besting Kobe’s mark should be a windfall until some grade-schooler tops them both.
Sport has long been screen staple. Fiction and –non, boxing has generally fared best, perhaps for treating the seamier side, but nearly every form of athletics has had its hours. Along the way, racial, religious and gender discrimination have been touched on if not treated, and so have physical and mental afflictions, icons, innocents and cads, humor and debunking as well as sport as artistic propaganda or hazy metaphor for life itself or, of late, rah-rah reinforcement of national self-image of underdog pluck and character.
The title of this new entry echoes knightly ordeal, the trial by fire in which real men’s mettle is tested. A dozen years back, Steve James’s Hoop Dreams wonderfully explored the underside of all that, as have a number of books, but Through the Fire plays it straight and sees the emperor fully clothed in splendor.
A cousin of worshiped but troubled star Stephon Marbury, younger brother of a former college player “exiled” to play overseas at more than decent money when NBA aspirations did not pan out, Coney Island court legend Telfair carries on his shoulders Lincoln High’s hopes, his neighborhood’s pride, and his family’s chances to escape the Surfside Gardens Projects.
What started as a 2003 HBO short on the then-eleventh grader mushroomed, for eight-time Emmy winner Hock, into “a bigger and quintessentially American story to be told: one of dreams, heartbreak, redemption and, above all, family.” In Panasonic DVX 100A/HD but minus sound operator and artificial lighting, and thus a fitting feel of lower-level slick television coverage, the filmmaker follows chronologically the eighteen-year-old’s increasingly pressured senior year. Head shots, interviews and TV screens mix with rough scrimmages, PSAL season games progress to the tournament quest for an unprecedented third consecutive city championship, celebrity guests of course in attendance along with college coaches and sports equipment representatives. Then national all-America games, pro scouts, press conferences, magazine shoots, and, finally, families watching a televised draft lottery as if it were a major event itself.
The teen’s character and vocabulary do deteriorate a bit, understandably so, but he seems a nice enough kid, although the touted articulateness and charisma are only in comparison and the adjunct of fame. Once upon a time masked as compassionate “hardship” cases, professional leagues’ signings of underage children or underclassmen are today matters of course, with college letters of intent not worth the paper they’re signed on, and the system and this film barrel on with no thought whatsoever.
Granted that social inequalities allow of few other legal or otherwise outs for such as Sebastian Telfair, this uncritical hosanna of the whole is reprehensible and harmful. A tattoo is nixed, “family,” “mother” and “apple pie” are mouthed and believed, but first comes a “we buy expensive” Rolex and “a toy, a Bentley” for oldest brother Daniel Turner, and mom’s eventual new house will have an oversized swimming pool like one in Athens. Grown men are interviewed who think their lives ruined by the failure to make it playing games for millions, while miseducated African-American McDonalds student-athletes are dressed up to parade before Middle America legislators who spin basketballs on fingertips and a goodies-lavishing ghoul is straightfacedly accepted as a “legendary figure from the sneaker world.” A major publication trick-shoots its cover-story photos, and a kid and a nation are sucked in.
Pedestrian at best as filmmaking, this is far different from the cultural document it pretends to be. Indicative of our naïvete in confronting realities here and abroad, it glosses over trouble in our own backyards and schoolyards. Just before final rap music rhyming “show” with “know” and fashionable “blow,” brother Jamel Thomas does not realize the irony in what he says: this is not sports any more, it’s money, lots of it. Unredeemed excess.
(Released by Cinema Libre Studio; not rated by MPAA.)