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‘Shut Up and Dribble’ is more than just a public clapback from LeBron James to Laura Ingraham

But the Showtime series largely fails to recognize the activism of black women

LeBron James is unquestionably one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Thanks to his production company, he’s also got the means for world-class trolling.

The latest show to emerge from James’ SpringHill Entertainment company is Shut Up and Dribble, a three-part documentary that cheekily takes its title from an admonishment that Fox News personality Laura Ingraham made when James called President Donald Trump a “bum” on Twitter after he disinvited Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors from an official visit to the White House.

The series, which begins airing on Showtime on Saturday, is not a cheap volley in a tit-for-tat culture war with Fox News. Director Gotham Chopra packs it with plenty of context and history surrounding race, social activism and sports. He highlights the internecine squabbles that took place within the NBA after it merged with the ABA in 1976 and subsequently became a much blacker league, and it traces those original fault lines to the way we discuss athletes and activism today.

The series focuses largely, but not exclusively, on basketball, and it includes nods to the sacrifices of Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Jesse Owens. Beginning with Bill Russell and the resentment of the stylistic innovations he and other black players brought to basketball, Chopra illustrates how the broad social movements from the 1960s to the present colored public perception of athletes. He deftly critiques a largely white, male sports media and reveals the bias in how it covered Oscar Robertson and the fight for free agency, when pundits questioned whether athletes were paid too much money. A close look at the way Allen Iverson’s personal style became political, and the unease that resulted as hip-hop culture came to define the NBA, is especially edifying, even for those who think they already know the story.

The retail success of Michael Jordan provides an opportunity for Chopra to widen his lens to branding, capitalism and capitulation, and how much pressure black athletes face to make themselves palatable to white audiences. He lends nuance to our understanding of Jordan, who refused to speak publicly about Harvey Gantt’s run for senator in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina or about the beating of Rodney King. Chopra makes it possible to see Jordan’s silence as a betrayal while also appreciating the patriotic pride Jordan and other members of the Dream Team inspired.

He deftly critiques a largely white, male sports media and reveals the bias in how it covered Oscar Robertson and the fight for free agency, when pundits questioned whether athletes were paid too much money.

It’s a compelling, quick-moving series, although the rather abrupt end of episode three will likely leave viewers wishing for a few more minutes examining what might be next for James and other athlete activists.

Shut Up and Dribble includes commentary and context from a number of male celebrities, including Larry Wilmore, Billy Crystal, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Justin Timberlake and Sway. If there is a fault with Shut Up and Dribble, which was written by Adam Feinstein and Alex Stapleton, it’s that by excluding the on-camera expertise of women — sportswriter Jackie MacMullan is the lone exception — both within the stories of athlete activism and the talking heads contextualizing it, the series ends up defining athlete activism around racial justice as something that’s primarily done and discussed by men. The activism from WNBA players, spurred by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, amounts to a visual footnote. (Former Undefeated columnist Jemele Hill narrates Shut Up and Dribble, and my current colleague Justin Tinsley makes a brief appearance.)

Talking about how Islamophobia affected the careers of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf or Craig Hodges feels incomplete without also examining Ibtihaj Muhammad. Echoes of the politicization and demonization of Iverson’s personal style occur in the backlash to Serena Williams Crip Walking after winning the Olympic gold medal and in Brittney Griner’s struggles at Baylor University, where, like Iverson, she was accused of alienating fans because of the way she looked and dressed. The public condemnation of these women is part of the fabric of white resentment toward public-facing blackness in sports, and it’s just as significant. There’s a lot more story left to tell, and there’s nothing about the goals of Shut Up and Dribble that suggests these stories need be siloed according to gender.

James and Maverick Carter, through their SpringHill Entertainment and Uninterrupted production companies, have enormously influential platforms. It’s clear they want to produce intelligent, truthful work about black people — and they have. But that work is incomplete in a way that the history of black civil rights activism marginalized the contributions of women. Women were more than just helpmeets to important black movements for social change — they were strategists and architects of them.

James — who, it should be said, is co-producing a series for Netflix about Madam C.J. Walker — should follow the example of Frederick Douglass. Douglass was an ally to the women’s suffrage movement and a vocal advocate of the fact that the work of his contemporary, Ida B. Wells, was just as important as his own. It’s not difficult. Just heed the words of Angelica Schuyler (as imagined by Lin-Manuel Miranda, anyway): Include women in the sequel!

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.