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Sporting Blackness: A Conversation with Samantha Sheppard

Bruno Guaraná

From Film Quarterly, Fall 2020, Volume 74, Number 1

A Black man wearing a noose around his neck, filmed from a low angle. This brief, cryptic shot opens Haile Gerima’s short film Hour Glass (1971). A cut, and the character is reintroduced as a college basketball player, first at practice, then in a game, surrounded by other Black athletes. They work the ball while, as Umar Bin Hassan—member of the legendary Harlem collective the Last Poets—recites on the soundtrack, “The white man is cuttin’ off their balls.” Glancing toward the white spectators in the bleachers, the ballplayer seems to experience an epiphany, comprehending his objectification and commodification as an athlete.

Hour Glass, one of Gerima’s early student works at UCLA, visualizes the character’s journey to black consciousness through dreamlike sequences and symbols of black resistance and scholarship. A pile of books (by Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Eldridge Cleaver, among others) and a red-and-blue mural with images of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.—whose speeches also feature on the film’s dissonant soundtrack along with music and percussive sounds—all add up to a dense, if fragmented, image of blackness that exceeds the span of the short film. The noose around the character’s neck is what he cannot shake: the burden of the Black sporting body.

My understanding of Hour Glass and its import for black film aesthetics is indebted to Samantha Sheppard’s illuminating new book, Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen. Sheppard unravels the contextual history of Gerima’s film and decodes its many signifiers, which might otherwise remain obscure to contemporary viewers. She claims, for instance, that Hour Glass is best read in consonance with the medals ceremony of the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games, in which African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a silent protest against racial and economic injustice back in the United States. While not referencing the sprinters, the film establishes a dialogue with that moment through its focus on blackness and on sports, questioning the co-option of the Black body by an institution (be it an Olympics committee, basketball, higher education, or even cinema itself) in which African Americans do not have equal representation.

Hour Glass is just one of the many media texts Sheppard analyzes in her book, which surveys with breadth and depth the sports-film genre and its representation of Black athletes. In the same way that one cannot separate Gerima’s film from the medals ceremony in Mexico City, one cannot, argues Sheppard, separate the visual legacy of blackness in American cinema from the visual legacy of Black sporting bodies (22). As with most genres, the sports film tends to be plausible and predictable, boxed in by formal structures and representational formulas that tip the scale in favor of conservative, rather than challenging, images and narratives, often packaged as inspirational cautionary tales. Yet, Sheppard sees it as a crucial genre for representing race in American cinema in its inclusion of racial tropes and politics.

Sporting Blackness redirects onto the sports genre what James Snead once diagnosed as the three tactics employed by cinema to perpetuate racial stereotypes: mythification, marking, and omission.1 The mythification that justifies athletic exceptionalism dehistoricizes the Black body, making it available for stereotyping. While at times contributing to this mythification, the sports genre can also push Black athletes to the narrative or visual margins or omit them entirely. Sheppard’s interest, however, lies with the possibilities within the sports genre to break out of these molds and historicize, contextualize, and even free the Black sporting body within the formal conventions and representational limitations of the genre. Sporting Blackness revels in how and when the Black athletic body disrupts generic stereotypes and challenges dominant regimes of racial representation, resignifying itself by asserting its own blackness and refusing to be just a spectacle.

For Sheppard, the Black sporting body is both expressive of multiple, ever-renewable meanings and a blank canvas, but one that always echoes history. To convey the unearthing of this history, Sheppard coins the term “critical muscle memory”—a physiological and cognitive construct that here doubles as both a descriptor of resistance and contestation, and an analytical method, aiming at impeding the racial short circuits of media representation. In her words, the practice is one that “examines the dimensionality of the Black body and the density of blackness” (16).

Crucial to this practice is a historiographic contextualization of the media text, the Black athletic body, and the generic framework. As they “sport blackness,” Sheppard argues, Black bodies experience and project this critical muscle memory. Saturated in meaning, the Black athlete always bears a cultural, sports, and media history that exceeds the image. Digging through this polyvalence to uncover how (and what) the Black sporting body signifies, Sheppard endows the reader with the structures of knowledge necessary to decode these images as resistant, rather than conforming, ones.

Sheppard identifies four types of Black sporting bodies, devoting a chapter to each. In the first chapter, she discusses the historical contestant in sports documentaries (examples include On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Team You Never Heard Of [Deborah Morales, 2011] and Hoop Reality [Lee Davis, 2007]), a cinematic mode that is particularly prone to unveiling the historicity of the Black sporting body. For Sheppard, sports documentaries are themselves, in their historiographic impulse, a discourse of and about critical muscle memory, enabling athletes to participate in and negotiate discourses of black experiences, history, and sports. These athletes become, in the documentary mode, agents of their own history, reclaiming cinematic signification, and effectively sporting blackness.

In chapter 2, Sheppard unravels the multiple iterations of racial icon James “Boobie” Miles, a high school football running back whom she describes as a “transmedia character.” Expanding her critical analysis beyond the cinematic medium into a kind of racial celebrity study, Sheppard assesses the possibilities and limitations of Miles’s racial iconicity starting with his depiction in H. G. Bissinger’s best-selling book Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream, and continuing through his portrayals in NBC’s short-lived series Against the Grain (1993), the film Friday Night Lights (Peter Berg, 2004), and the acclaimed television series Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006–8; 101 Network, 2008–11), as well as in Big K.R.I.T.’s rap lyrics and music videos that reference Miles. Such a broad approach proves the elasticity of Sheppard’s methodology, as she applies it vertically—on the multiple iterations of Boobie’s “character”—as well as horizontally, across different media.

The third chapter adopts an intersectional analysis of the sports-film genre, but focusing on female athletes—a framework that foregrounds a gender transgression of the sports film. Intersectionality provides a critical framework in cases such as Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own (1992), centered on the formation of an all-white female baseball league. As Sheppard points out, the one scene in which a Black character is present enacts a critique of the exclusion of Black athletes from the league (and, therefore, the omission of Black actors from the film’s cast). Even though the Black character remains unnamed, and appears for only a few brief shots, her presence challenges the gender equity promoted by the actual league by highlighting its racial inequity. Aside from an investigation into these minor, narratively marginalized depictions, Sheppard also examines the athletic viability and endurance of Black women by looking at Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000) and Juwanna Mann (Jesse Vaughan, 2002), both centered on Black female athletes.

Gerima’s Hour Glass provides the focus for chapter 4, in which Sheppard explores rebellious athletes through the experimental film’s cinematic possibilities and multiple signifying layers. This chapter embraces critical muscle memory most vividly as an analytical tool, training the reader along the way. The film and the chapter turn the Black body into an intertextual and globalized phenomenon, away from America and toward a diasporic understanding of black history, memory, culture, and sports. In her fusion of theories of race and blackness with her concept of critical muscle memory, Sheppard offers a new analytical paradigm applicable beyond the genre at the center of her study.

Whether considering the backlash against Serena Williams and Colin Kaepernick for defying the arbitrary standards of their sports, or the tragic murder of Ahmaud Arbery, shot multiple times while jogging in a white neighborhood, it is impossible to ignore the social implications of sporting blackness, and the risks of not exercising critical muscle memory. Yet as a conversation with Sheppard reveals, Sporting Blackness is packed with joy, resistance, and hope—much-needed attributes in this time.

Bruno Guaraná: I’d like to explore the genesis of this book project, which started with your dissertation. What was your personal investment in the topic?

Samantha Sheppard: Yes, this project comes out of my doctoral research, which focused on embodiment and performativity in contemporary sports films. In the dissertation’s conclusion, I noted that the project’s future would include thinking through the idea of critical muscle memory. At the time, I had a sense of the concept but had not quite fleshed out what it meant and could mean in terms of race and embodiment in the genre. But I knew that it would be an integral part of my attempt to think more critically about sports films and black representation. So, this project really grew from trying to examine the Black sporting body’s representations, resonance, and repetitions.

Looking even further back, I would say that this book’s idea had its initial wellspring in my deep personal affection for and ambivalence about sports, largely based on my own experience as an athlete. While I am critical of sports culture, I am also completely fascinated by the sports-film genre. I can quote my fair share of scenes from sports films and have been known to recite random lines from Remember the Titans (Boaz Yakin, 2000) and Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) unprompted. I appreciate a good slow clap and training montage. In short, I am a fan of the genre. What I love most about sports films is their fraught and sometimes fabulous depictions of the Black sporting body as virtuosic in its athleticism. As a result, Sporting Blackness is attuned to the pleasures and perils of black athleticism on-screen.

As a researcher, I was struck by how undertheorized the genre was in terms of race and representation. This lack of criticism has occurred, in part, because sports films are often and incorrectly perceived as apolitical or innocuous due to their utopian, melodramatic, and idealized narratives. And yet, the gap in black film criticism specifically felt glaring because of the genre’s vaulted if underappreciated viewpoint of the Black body. With this book, I wanted to fill the gap in sports and black film and media criticism and bring interdisciplinary methods to bear on the genre’s representational and formal practices and possibilities.

Guaraná: Could you talk about how you selected the corpus of films you analyze and your considerations for organizing them for the book?

Sheppard: One of the best things I did for myself early in the writing process was to reject the idea that this book needed to be either a genealogy or a complete survey of black representation in sports films. I was therefore able to free myself from that kind of specific narrative/historical structure and attend more acutely to distinct representational tropes and their formal consequences within and beyond sport cinema’s regimes of representation.

In the introduction’s explanation of key terms, I discuss conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas’s video Overtime (2011). Exhibition curator Richard Klein explains that Overtime stages the question “What happens when the visual legacy of American lynching collides with the visual legacy of the slam dunk?”2 I explore a similarly provocative question throughout the chapters of my book: What happens when the visual legacy of blackness in American cinema collides with the visual legacies of Black sporting bodies? Therefore, I organized the book into four chapters that engage Black sporting bodies as historical contestants, racial icons, athletic genders, and rebellious athletes. The arc of the book constructs and deconstructs the modes, codes, and conventions of the genre, keeping in mind how Black bodies shape and reshape meaning on-screen and beyond. In the end, Sporting Blackness theorizes race and embodiment in terms of the sports-film genre but provides a way to understand blackness both in motion and in contest that has applicability outside the sports film’s categorical boundaries and generic restrictions.

Guaraná: Throughout the book, you deftly reveal the connective tissues between particular moments in film (and other media) and black history, sports, and culture. But the term “critical muscle memory” also describes a spectatorial affect. To what would you attribute the potential for these affects on any spectator?

Sheppard: A lot of the theorists I was drawing from, including C. L. R. James, Elizabeth Alexander, Harvey Young, Frantz Fanon, and Grant Farred, are thinking about shared, black embodied experiences affectively. In a similar manner, I offer an athletically and culturally specific use of the term “critical muscle memory”—one that engages human kinetics and black memory in terms of Black communities. And this racial specificity matters in terms of the images and the spectators I am engaged with in the book. But I do think the term is capacious enough to be modified and deployed to engage other images and experiences.

Guaraná: How do sports documentaries challenge the conservative nature of more-mainstream sports films? I wonder whether these documentaries can affect the way people consume sports broadcasts and understand sporting blackness.

Sheppard: On one hand, there are a lot of sports documentaries that affirm conservative racial scripts or function as hagiographic treatments that are superficial at best. In spring 2020, everyone seemed to be watching the Michael Jordan–produced docuseries The Last Dance (Netflix/ESPN, 2020). I cannot help but agree with media scholar Racquel Gates, who described the ten-part docuseries as more concert film than sports documentary. On other hand, there are documentaries like O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, 2016), which provides an almost exhaustive treatment of O.J.’s biography to form a broader politically and socially informed narrative about race, place, sports, and celebrity culture in the United States.

Sports documentaries often use first-person narration, which allows Black athletes to speak back to and against their framing in sports history, and in the popular imagination. For example, I talk about Hoop Reality’s metatextual dispute with Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994). Hoop Reality allowed former Hoop Dreams star Arthur Agee to emerge as an iconoclastic figure who challenged the telos of the canonical sports documentary. Throughout the book, I chose films—On the Shoulders of Giants; This Is a Game, Ladies (Peter Schnall and Rob Kuhns, 2004); Hoop Dreams; and Hoop Reality (Lee Davis, 2007)—that can convey black interiority and articulate sporting blackness and critical muscle memory as historiographic redress within a capitalist and racist sports-media culture.

Guaraná: You dedicate the entire second chapter to the many iterations of running back James “Boobie” Miles in different media. What is his significance in sports history and popular culture?

Sheppard: This is my favorite chapter because Boobie is such a compelling case study. To me, Boobie is as much a football folk hero as he is a cautionary tale. He is significant to sports history for so many reasons. Boobie was an exceptional high school athlete who met a common sporting fate when a career-ending injury devastated his life. In this regard, his familiar story reverberates because it resonates and replicates so easily across sports culture and the public imagination. There are a lot of Boobies out there. At the same time, it is important to note that there is no Friday Night Lights story without Boobie. [In his book] H. G. Bissinger is quite clear that Boobie is the center of the story about high school sporting culture. It is Boobie’s body—his sporting blackness—that inaugurates an entire media franchise.

I can actually remember the first time I saw the film Friday Night Lights. I was nineteen years old. I hated the film. (I was not used to sports films that ended in defeat and had not read the book.) But I loved Boobie. In the intervening years since the book and film, Boobie’s celebrity has not waned. A student in my sports-film class at Cornell wore a Boobie Miles jersey to class one day. With this chapter, I wanted to engage with Nicole Fleetwood’s brilliant conceptualization of the Black sports icon.3 I wanted to modulate how we think about Boobie as a venerated and denigrated figure across media contexts (literary, cinematic, televisual, and sonic) that engage, modify, and rework his original subjectivity in terms of his racial iconicity.

Guaraná: Sports and cinema, which are at the core of popular culture, appear in your book as co-constructing a particular image of blackness. In your third chapter, you use an intersectional analysis to explore how Black female athletes are positioned in different films. How is sporting blackness gendered in popular culture?

Sheppard: Sporting blackness in popular culture is most explicitly gendered male. This fact usually is unacknowledged but ubiquitous. In the third chapter I wanted to enact a black feminist analysis to consider how representations of Black women athletes on-screen directly challenge a genre predicated on their erasure. When Black sportswomen are depicted on-screen they afford the chance to think about the intraracial sociality of sporting blackness. The two films I put into conversation—Love & Basketball and Juwanna Mann—include the tension around the gendering of sporting blackness in their narratives explicitly.

Guaraná: Your fourth chapter highlights Haile Gerima’s resistant and revolting approach to sporting blackness in his short film Hour Glass. Yet, its experimental approach means the film escapes the genre that it challenges. Is it possible for the sports genre to enact such a critique without refusing to “play the game,” as you put it, of the sports genre—its formal codes, conventions, and cultural assumptions?

Sheppard: I would not say that Hour Glass escapes the sports film entirely. I would say it deliberately is and is not a sports film. Inhabiting the space of either, or, and both means that Hour Glass operates as black cinematic refusal, which makes it unconventional but not completely outside of the genre. I think a lot of experimental sports media such as Hour Glass put necessary pressure on how sports films “play the game” in terms of codes, conventions, and cultural assumptions. I was reading Astria Suparak and Brett Kashmere’s special issue of INCITE on experimental sports media. They really get at the consequential ways in which critiques about sports and society are rendered in these kinds of work.4

On the one hand, I think anti–sports films like High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh, 2019) enact a critique similar to that of Hour Glass by refusing to “play the game” as a sports film interested in everything except the game. On the other hand, I do think that it is possible for sports film to enact critiques without completely refuting the formal codes, conventions, and cultural assumptions of the genre. But I think that happens more in specific scenes than throughout entire mainstream productions. For example, the basketball drama Glory Road (James Gartner, 2006) is a fairly formulaic, Hollywood sports film, including a paternalistic white male coach who teaches/disciplines Black athletes to play “fundamental/textbook” basketball.

But there is one scene that does the kind of undoing work that happens in Hour Glass where the Black players shed the coach’s style of play. The players beg to be “let loose” so they win an important game. The divine moment (scored to a gospel song, of course) destabilizes the understanding of the disciplined Black sporting body on-screen. The players demonstrate how their preferred game is “sweet music,” a vernacular and improvisational sporting style that requires both spontaneity and control. Most importantly, that scene refutes the entire first act of the film: the Black players do not need that white coach to win or to teach them how to win. He needs them for both—not the other way around.

Guaraná: You describe and analyze examples of sporting blackness in a wide range of films, including the nearly all-white A League of Their Own and experimental films such as Overtime. Where does the agency, or even responsibility, of sporting blackness lie, then? Is it in the athletes themselves, the actors or filmmakers, the spectator—or the scholar?

Sheppard: This is a great question. One of the arguments of the book is that the fitness of sporting blackness comes from the fact that it is intentional, implicit, and improvised. Therefore, agency is diffused but always comes from the surplus expressivity of the black image on-screen. Sporting blackness requires one to think about Black bodies as canvases of representation that are able to mean and mean again.

Guaraná: Can you identify any recent sports films that aptly negotiate “film blackness” and activate critical muscle memory?

Sheppard: I have to be honest: I told myself that once this book was complete I would never have to watch a film with a ball in it ever again. In spite of this promise, I have been thinking about more-recent sports films that negotiate “film blackness” and activate critical muscle memory. For example, I am really interested in the spate of recent black sports documentaries that have come out, including Women of Troy (Alison Ellwood, 2020) and Marshawn Lynch: A History (David Shields, 2019). In terms of fiction films, I still think High Flying Bird and The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer, 2016) are really provocative and evocative examples that advance thinking about sports, blackness, performativity, and shared embodied experiences.

Guaraná: What are some of your upcoming projects?

Sheppard: In terms of sports media, I have a forthcoming collection with the University of Nebraska Press on sports documentaries that I coedited with Travis Vogan: Sporting Realities: Critical Readings of the Sports Documentary. I am currently working on an essay on the televisual politics of football star Marshawn Lynch as well as a book project, Screening Basketball [for Rutgers University Press], which examines the interplay between basketball and media.

Alongside this interest in sports media, I am deeply invested in thinking about and through black media and visual culture. This investment compels my study of black televisuality and the work of Jerrod Carmichael as well as another book project, Phantom Cinema: Black Feminist Film That Never Was, which builds on my earlier essay “I Love Cinema: Black Film and Speculative Practice in the Era of Online Crowdfunding” in Film Quarterly.5

Notes

1. James A. Snead, White Screens, Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side, ed. Colin MacCabe and Cornel West (New York: Routledge, 1994). 2. Richard Klein, Hank Willis Thomas: Strange Fruit, exhibition catalog (Ridgefield, CT: Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 2012), 5. 3. See Nicole R. Fleetwood, On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015). 4. Astria Suparak and Brett Kashmere, eds., “Sports,” special issue, INCITE: Journal of Experimental Media, nos. 7/8 (2016–17). 5. Samantha Sheppard, “I Love Cinema: Black Film and Speculative Practice in the Era of Online Crowdfunding,” Film Quarterly 71, no. 2 (Winter 2017): 25–31.

BOOK DATA Samantha N. Sheppard, Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020. $85.00 cloth; $29.95 paper; $29.95 e-book. 264 pages.

Read the Introduction to Sporting Blackness here.

© 2020 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.