On the Shoulders of Giants

When a documentary makes you interested in a subject you know nothing about, to the point of generating enthusiasm, I’d call that a successful film. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Deborah Morales have a lot to be proud of with their maiden effort in the documentary field, On the Shoulders of Giants, which is now available exclusively on Video On Demand through Comcast, Cox Cable, and Time Warner through the end of March.

I am sent a great many dvds to screen, and don’t have time to examine more than a handful, but this one commanded my attention, for a number of reasons. Although I don’t follow professional sports, I am keenly interested in social and cultural history—and of course, I’m well aware of a living legend like Abdul-Jabbar. Last fall, I hosted the annual awards dinner for the Los Angeles Jazz Society and had the good fortune to meet the athlete, who came to present the evening’s centerpiece award to musician—

—Pancho Sanchez. I also had a good chat with his partner, Morales, a can-do person who calls herself an “Iconomist.” She told me about their upcoming film and I expressed genuine interest. A few days later I received a copy of the legendary athlete’s book On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, co-authored by Raymond Obstfield. Then last week I got to screen their movie, co-written with Anna Waterhouse, which focuses on just one aspect of the book.

The movie’s subtitle says it all: “The Story of the Greatest Basketball Team You Never Heard Of.”

Their actual name was the Harlem Renaissance, but they were known to their many fans and admirers as the Rens. To understand their significance, and the history they made (much of it lost or forgotten) you have to understand the broader picture of race in America during the first half of the 20th century, and the unique culture of Harlem. To do this, Abdul-Jabbar and Morales corralled the most impressive, diverse and in some cases surprising array of interview subjects imaginable, including Maya Angelou, Dr. Cornel West, Bill Russell, Charles Barkley, Wynton Marsalis, Bob Costas, the late John Wooden, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Julius Erving, Jerry West, and Herbie Hancock, to name just a few! They all make significant, even eloquent, contributions to the story of a remarkable group of men who comprised the first all-black professional basketball team in America.

What’s more, On the Shoulders of Giants pulses with music and artwork, (making especially fine use of Justin Bua’s paintings) as befits a story rooted in the Harlem renaissance. The filmmakers use cutting-edge graphics, animation, stock footage, and its well-chosen interview clips so dynamically you’re never aware that there is very little actual performance footage of the Rens on the court! On the Shoulders of Giants also boasts an original score by jazz composer and orchestrator Bill Cunliffe, along with a constant bed of source music underneath Jamie Foxx’s narration.

It’s easy to say that a film like this should be shown to schoolchildren and budding athletes—as it should—but I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t respond to such a fascinating topic, presented in such appealing fashion. If this reads like a rave review, it’s because On the Shoulders of Giants knocked me out. I hope it finds the audience it so richly deserves. Check out Video on Demand on your local cable system and order it tonight.

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July 2024