SEPTEMBER 29, 2020
IN MY HOUSE and many others, the pandemic began on March 11, 2020, the day the NBA announced it would suspend the remainder of the season due to a player’s positive COVID-19 test. I knew something was wrong, that this event would be exacerbated by our behavior, specifically a strange mix of incredulity and invincibility, two days earlier when Utah Jazz Center Rudy Gobert playfully touched all of the audio equipment at a news conference. Since then, I can mark the passing of quarantine time through sporting events outside of formal competition, specifically instances when images of Black athletes have addressed the health and reflexes of the body politic: the release of a hyped Michael Jordan docuseries on ESPN and then on Netflix that felt like old-fashioned appointment TV; the discovery of a noose in Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s garage after the association banned the display of confederate flags; top-basketball prospect Makur Maker’s decision to forgo a division one program and commit to Howard University, a historically black institution; and finally, the careless way gymnast Simone Biles’s Black skin was lit on the August cover of Vogue magazine, which was supposed to highlight the star’s poise facing USA Gymnastics’ abuse scandal and the delay of the 2020 Olympics.
Professional sports is an arena where Black stars like Jordan, Wallace, Maker, Biles and Gobert can display their exceptional resiliency or, illogically, the pathology of the entire Black community; so, it is not a coincidence that much of my recent sporting memory speaks to another, inextricably linked, threat to our health that is currently receiving renewed attention: anti-blackness and police brutality. In February, three white men, Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan chased, trapped, and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man jogging in South Georgia. Four months later, no one had not been charged, and a video of the attack was released online. Public outrage eventually resulted in arrests, an investigation into the case’s mismanagement, a day of remembrance in which runners jogged 2.23 miles to mark the day of Arbery’s death and the hashtag #IRunWithMaud. These events, along with the global protests in solidarity with Black and Trans lives over the last few months, have demonstrated how difficult it is to discern when Black people in motion, or in stillness, are an expression of self-possession and political power or discipline and vulnerability. This question of agency is always a part of sports, particularly the coverage of leagues that mediate complicated feelings about black movement. Players’ agile moves in gameplay, business, and politics matter because they can express the historic continuity and/or disjuncture between 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos and former NFL quarterback/present-day Nike spokesperson Colin Kaepernick. In other words, the visual culture of professional sports replays, again and again, the relationship between value and violation at times when it is critical that we can see the entire field.
I imagine these reflections about exercising cultural memory in response to Allen Iverson’s iconic rant from almost twenty years ago: yes, I want to talk about practice. Samantha N. Sheppard’s book Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen addresses the spectacle of blackness in sports as a sustained effort to challenge our amnesiac public discourse by creating a cinematic archive of black movement. Sheppard positions the genre’s work, particularly its repetitions and even clichés, in a way that echoes the more explicitly political work of Black activists who create hashtags and stage public performances as acts of black social gathering and survival. The pace of organizing protests, articulating demands, and even circulating memes during a global pandemic in this most recent iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement is impressive, but not surprising. This is a practice. The important, overlapping work sports and activism can do is actually remembering black pain, achievement, and the process of gaining momentum over and over, punctuating time — quarantine or otherwise — against its tendency to slip by. By focusing on the sports film, Sheppard recognizes the significance of that temporal intervention, the way that seamless (cinematic) continuity can either visualize the ways black futurity is limited to the area of sports or can abruptly end the critique of anti-blackness in pursuit of the happy ending. The sports film is key in the development of what Sheppard calls, “critical muscle memory,” the “embodied, kinesthetic, and cinematic histories that go beyond a film’s diegesis to index, circulate, reproduce, and/or counter broader narratives about Black sporting and non-sporting experiences in American society.”
Sporting Blackness considers the familiar moves of the sports film that remain undertheorized, likely because they are so well choreographed, and explores the ways these cinematic moments rely on expressions of blackness. Black bodies, music, and struggles against anti-blackness cohere the sport film’s formal conventions by validating its documentary impulse, determining the pace and rhythm of athletic performances and establishing the stakes of gameplay. Sheppard calls sports films a “black body genre,” adapting Linda Williams’s description of the representational and spectatorial excesses that define horror, melodrama, and pornography, in order to address the the black body as an abstraction of Black people and the material and affective excesses that are mapped onto black skin. In sports films, Black characters absorb losses by embodying moral failures or winning despite the structures that fail them. These ambivalent efforts to contain bodies of loss both overdetermine Black athletes and call for them to “stick to sports.” The result is a contemporary iteration of colonial discourse that insists Black people are of but never on the team.
Instead of critiquing negative stereotypes and narratives that sideline Black characters, Sheppard argues the black body is central to the organizational logics of these films and argues our analytic investment should shift accordingly, from “skin in the game” to “skin in the genre.” The histories of misogynoir and the fetishization of black masculinity are still relevant because they communicate the genre’s most important, and often most conservative, values. However, for precisely that reason, the author argues these excesses can unmoor the histories documented in sports films, making these films an ideal training ground for developing a critical muscle memory. Sporting Blackness approaches films like A League of their Own (Marshall, 1992) and Juwanna Mann (Vaughan, 2002) with their absent and troubling representations of Black women and opens them in ways that relish black visuality’s complexities. For instance, the author analyzes just thirteen seconds in A League of their Own, a film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that is over two-hours long. Shepphard focuses on the only Black character to appear in the film, who is unnamed in the story and the credits, and explains how her presence at the margins of the narrative and the baseball field marks the much larger absence of Black women from sporting history in a way that upsets the film’s tidy take on inclusion.
I grew up in a Midwestern city that had an AAGPBL team and I know every beat in this scene from A League of their Own: the Black character picking up a loose ball, throwing it past the film’s lead to a player in the outfield, and then giving a confident and knowing nod. I can even remember the sound of the scene, which is scored by a big swing band that, in this moment, slows from the energic drum section to the more reverent sound of the horns. The music establishes the players’ rhythm in a classic montage about the team finally hitting its stride; specifically, the players discovering they can save the league if they develop their showmanship by catching a ball while gracefully gliding into a split or holding kissing contests between innings. Although the Black woman’s appearance is brief, it is essential to the sequence, which is itself an almost requisite part of the genre. The Black woman’s exclusion is both the radical expulsion the white women never have to fear and, oddly enough, I think proof of the team’s ability to overcome obstacles. When the montage slows to register her presence it indicates how the film works or, perhaps, proves the film is working. The Black woman marks the appropriate aural and visual limit of the diegetic and non-diegetic spectacle because the players and the film both know it needs to create this moment for the expressed purposes of forgetting it. Obviously, Shepphard and I didn’t.
By foregrounding memory, Sporting Blackness offers an expanded sense of what film study entails and who can perform that work. In the stunning second chapter, Sheppard follows the transmedia journey of football player Boobie Miles through the Friday Night Lights media franchise. Miles was first featured in H.G. Bissinger’s non-fiction book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, A Dream which was then adapted into a film and two television shows that each take different creative licenses telling Miles’s tragic story of injury and incarceration. The chapter argues each iteration of Miles’s story, and the real-life man’s occasional cameos in these productions, traps the man/character in a cycle of brokenness and failure that the texts recruit and then excise as part of the journey to victory. The chapter ends by exploring Miles’s recharacterization in the lyrics and music videos of rapper Big K.R.I.T., who makes Miles the subject of two songs. Rather than lamenting the player’s failure to succeed in a star system that speculates on the value of children, Big K.R.I.T. describes the player as a Black folk hero who matters because he is a reflection of community. In the artist’s sustained interest in Miles, Sheppard identifies a continuous and communal practice of centering blackness.
In a recent Zoom lecture, Fred Moten made a point that helps explain the narrow distinction between valuing and caring for Miles. Moten reminded listeners, “the NFL says Black Lives Matter, and then it turns out they actually mean that shit,” thus, the poet/scholar suggested, “I don’t feel like there’s any way for us to properly differentiate ourselves from the enemy except through practice.” In Sporting Blackness, that work includes gathering together around an accessible object of study and, in both form and content, moving away from the individuation of racial iconicity. Thus, the chapters place mainstream sports films in conversation with current events and a vast range of visual culture objects and, in an expression of Sheppard’s own muscle memory, multiple theoretical frameworks including postcolonial theories, performance studies, and black feminist theory. Opening the critical practice space even more, Sheppard implies rappers like Big K.R.I.T. and anyone else who resists the narrow framing of Black athletes like Miles is performing film study. Thus, the book uses black studies’ resistance to disciplinarity as a way out of the formal and narrative constraints of the film genre and the ideological boundaries around academic scholarship. Simply tracing Miles’s lengthy journey across different texts and media is impressive, but it is the end of the chapter when Sheppard offers hip-hop as a citational practice that Sporting Blackness again performs its thesis.
Beginning with the documentary This is a Game, Ladies (2004) about the 2000–2001 Rutgers women’s basketball teams, and ending with Haile Gerima’s Hour Glass (1971), an experimental short about a basketball player who discovers black radical politics and quits the college team, the chapters of Sporting Blackness follow what Sheppard calls “the revolt of the cinematic black athlete,” a reference to sociologist and activist Harry Edward’s writing about the relationship between sports and Black liberation. Sheppard often returns to the figure of the student-athlete in order to address the black body as a point of epistemic connection or tension in the genre, demonstrating the ways these real and fictional characters embody the project’s critical take on film study and historiography. In pursuit of their own critical muscle memory, the student-athletes dictate how we understand pasts and futures in these films. The Rutgers players, the unnamed player in Gerima’s film, William Gates and Arthur Agee from Hoop Dreams (1994), and Monica Wright and Quincy McCall in Love & Basketball (2000) are Black “prospects” and, thus, explain why pandemic time, the time of uprising, cinematic time, and the timelessness of anti-blackness seem so entangled with the image of black athletic performance. Sporting Blackness offers a version of endurance — a capacity for sustaining movement together — that can help us remember, or even affect, how it all plays out.