leave a comment --Ken Fox
When most of today's basketball superstars are African-American, it's hard to conceive of a time when to be black and play the game was considered a novelty. This heartfelt but only intermittently interesting documentary from writer-director Betsy Blankenbaker tells the story of the Crispus Attucks Tigers, the Indianapolis, Indiana, high-school basketball team that became the very first all-black lineup ever to win a state championship. Told primarily through the reminiscences of the surviving players and one or two cheerleaders the film begins by recalling the dark, segregated days of the pre-Civil Rights era, when blacks in many U.S. towns and cities were not only forbidden to attend the same public schools as whites, but were denied service in restaurants, admittance to movie theaters and bus seats in any but the back rows.
Ironically, Crispus Attucks, the Indianapolis school that would eventually become a shining example of young, African-American achievement, owed its very existence to such viciously racist attitudes: It was founded in 1927 by none other than the Ku Klux Klan as a means of ensuring black students stayed with their own kind; whether or not the school succeeded or failed was entirely immaterial (the school would not become desegregated until 1970). But the school not only didn't fail, it flourished, and attracted faculty members with graduate degrees and students passionate about the only game in town: basketball. It was not, however, until the arrival of assistant coach Ray Crowe in 1950 that this ragtag bunch of individual players was forged into a team. With an open-minded approach that favored a more fluid, faster style of play, and his never-say-lose attitude, Crowe helped transform the Attucks players into a force to be reckoned with. (Having grown up in a predominantly white town, he learned early how to deal with racial differences.) At first the Tigers were forced to play "country" teams in far-flung Indiana towns many of the city schools refused to play against blacks but the situation quickly changed when Attucks began winning game after game. They soon captured statewide attention with their innovative, dynamically athletic mode of play. Their newfound fan base meant an economic boon to the neighborhood, and the support of some of the white population meant some loosening of the strict rules of segregation. The prejudice of white referees, however, was often brutally blatant on the court. Nevertheless, true talent prevailed over hatred, and in 1955, the Tigers became state champs, but that victory would not be without a bitter aftertaste.
Blankenbaker, whose father was close friends with Ray Crowe, funded the film herself and she certainly has her heart in the right place: She's passionate about the game and rightfully proud of the Tigers' achievement. But while rescuing many nearly forgotten names from history's dustbin, the film is really geared toward basketball fans who won't mind the talking-heads format, and the glowing interviews that have more the tone of testimonials than a historical documentary.