Friedman, Lester D. Sports Movies (Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2020. Pp. 210. $ 17.95 paperback and ebook.
Reviewed by Łukasz Muniowski
Almost all of us consume professional sports indirectly, as a certain form of mediation is always involved when it comes to watching any type of athletic competition. It is simply impossible to physically attend each and every event that interests us, especially in the times of COVID-19. The experience of attending a live event significantly differs from watching it on a screen, inevitably altering one’s perception of it. Mediation is the necessary evil, one sports purists simply must ignore in order to be able to enjoy their favorite disciplines. Apart from fulfilling certain narrative expectations, sporting events are packaged to appeal to the casual viewer, with multiple cameras, corporate sponsors, and celebrities in the stands, as if to validate that what one is watching is not just a game but an important cultural event.
Sports fans are often the target audience of sports movies––movies in which sports are the primary occupation of the hero, whose primary identity is that of an athlete. When it comes to sports movies, the presentation of sporting events is expected to mimic the way they are presented in real life. The viewer watches these movies for their willingness to go beyond the packaging the real-life sports industry, with its over-commercialization and over-commodification of modern sports. However, the lack of involvement of TV stations, sports pundits, and/or the overall poor presentation of such sporting events in sports movies leads to disappointment and accusations of inauthenticity. And it is authenticity––a search for a deeper truth––that attracts people to sports movies in the first place. The purity of competition, the glory of victory, and/or the agony of defeat is supposed to set the sports movie genre apart from others.
In Sports Movies, Lester D. Friedman explores the dichotomous nature of sports movies, showing how they correspond with the staged and scripted construction of real-life sporting events. In order to convince as authentic, filmmakers must find athletic actors who capable of coming off as professional athletes or professional athletes who are able to act, as it is absolutely necessary for athletic feats to be perform in a believable way. This obviously imposes certain limitations on the filmmakers, which makes their work even harder, especially since the master narratives that define the genre are already quite limiting. Sports movies are peopled with stories of salvation, unity, or mentorship, where every man (sometimes an everyman!) can become a winner, even if the victory is only moral.
Friedman divides his book into four chapters, with each chapter focusing on a different sporting discipline. The discussion opens with baseball movies, the sport referred to as “America’s pastime.” Yet, as Friedman points out, it now stands second to football in its popularity. Baseball movies are oftentimes representative of “the good old days,” at least from the point of view of white audiences, as the protagonists of these movies are primarily white and, when reminiscing about the past, they most often refer to a time during which Black athletes were not allowed to play in the majors. Race is also at the forefront of basketball movies, which are discussed in the second chapter. Basketball, a predominantly Black sport, is mediated and watched by predominantly white audiences. With only one black NBA basketball team owner, whites are clearly the establishment. In basketball movies, qualities historically (and wrongly) associated with white players, like fundamentals and team-play, often are the reason the heroes of such movies eventually emerge triumphant. Even in movies like Coach Carter (2005), the titular hero (Samuel L. Jackson) chastises his players for showboating, which is synonymous with “acting black.”
Football movies, the subject of the third chapter, are primarily concerned with team play and heroism. The most violent of the three team sports, the narratives of football movies tend to mimic the narratives of war movies, with heroes putting their lives on the line for a greater good as they go to battle for one another. It is not an accident that in Any Given Sunday (1999) coach Tony D’Amato’s (Al Pacino) monologue about football is interspersed with clips of the chariot race from Ben Hur (1959), making the comparison between modern-day football players and gladiators all the more evident. The sacrifices made by both are somewhat similar, as they are “killing themselves” for the enjoyment of crowds. The same sentiment accompanies boxing movies, discussed in the fourth chapter, even though they focus on individual sacrifice and individual heroism. Unlike stories about teams, boxing movies are about exceptional people, whose strong punches equal the strength of their characters. Furthermore, as Friedman notices, “[M]ore than films about other sports, boxing movies tend to have layers of meaning that incorporate issues other than the sport itself” (p. 148). The fight in the ring is not only with the opponent, but also a struggle with one’s past and/or limitations.
A recent and interesting development in the boxing movie genre is female protagonists. No longer relegated to the roles of “distractions” or “obstacles,” women are centered as fighters, serving as the heroines of the movies. As sports movies have adhered to certain (male-centric) formulas throughout the decades, it is a welcome pivot. While narratives race has been at the forefront of sports movies for some time now, more narratives of gender inequality are needed. Overall, more inclusive sports movies will better present the complexity of sports and, in turn, further the authenticity that the genre strives to capture.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021), and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).