By: Eric Thomas
How did you watch the Bad Boys retrospective? Did you wear shorts so short that they barely covered your thighs? Did you grow your mustache out like James “Buddha” Edwards? Did you dress in a $7,000 suit in honor of the late Chuck Daly? Did you elbow anyone in the face?
Detroit seems abuzz from the Bad Boys retrospective last night. It stirred memories of days gone by. It gives us all the good memories: back to back championships, Jack Nicholson’s sad face behind his sunglasses, MC Hammer…okay not ALL The memories are good.
Sports documentaries are awesome. While watching actual old games are boring—because you know what’s going to happen and you wind up distracted by how awful the graphics look—the documentaries about them bring out all the important story lines, put them in proper context, and often blow them up much larger than they ever needed to be.
In honor of the Bad Boys retrospective, here are the five best sports documentaries to watch this weekend:
5. Pumping Iron – The best sports documentaries are about stuff that would be boring, but through the strength of the narrative, the subjects become interesting. This movie should have been a snore. It’s about the emerging world of competitive bodybuilding in the early 70s, but you’re riveted for its entire running time. The world met Arnold Schwarzenegger in this film. Sports networks covered competitive bodybuilding for ten years before realizing there was no way to make it interesting outside the context of this movie.
4. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg – Another Detroit special about baseball’s first Jewish superstar. We tend to think about Hank’s accomplishments on the field, and there are many, but this movie puts his times into context. Greenberg was a victim of epic amounts of discrimination as he chased Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. This doc puts it in focus. Greenberg was an amazing human being, and he gets forgotten in the discussion of baseball’s all-time greats, but this movie gives him his due.
3. Ali Frazier 1: One Nation…Divisible – So many to choose about Ali. “When We Were Kings,” was a more lauded film, but this one has better history. The first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier divided the nation, and provided a context for almost every argument taking place in the country at the time. While other sports are regional, boxing was national, and it often took on a significance that extended far beyond the two men in the ring. This documentary smartly takes that context into consideration, and the decision pays off dividends.
In honor of the Bad Boys retrospective: The five best sports documentaries
2. The King of Kong – Can a movie about video games be a sports documentary? Absolutely. It’s also one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. The seemingly low stakes of the context make it so much of a better. The film’s two combatants are from central casting. Billy Mitchell is one of the best villains in movie history, and Steve Weibe is his perfect foil. It’s about two men competing over the Donkey Kong high score, but it’s about sports, life and perseverance. If you haven’t seen this movie, you need to.
1. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson – History has never seen a figure as interesting as Jack Johnson, the boxer who became the first African American champion of the world. While we annually honor Jackie Robinson, Johnson won the championship in 1908, just over forty years after the end of the Civil War. He’s one of history’s most interesting people, a man whose bravery was limitless. The movie has a running time over three hours, but its entire length is breathtaking. This documentary by Ken Burns is required viewing.
Honorable mention (there are so many!!) Murderball, A City on Fire, Hoop Dreams, Nine Innings from Ground Zero. Is there any I forgot? Comment section, please.