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‘Warriors of Liberty City’ from LeBron James looks at a famed inner-city youth football program

Starz documentary dances with the energy of boys taking off for touchdowns as fast as their little legs can carry them

Plenty of cities have pee wee and Pop Warner football leagues, but none of them are quite like the Liberty City Warriors of Miami.

Warriors football has been one of the earliest proving grounds for later professional success. Chad Johnson, Antonio Brown and Devonta Freeman all rose through its ranks, and Miami sends more players to the NFL than any other American city. But it’s not just the conditioning in the sticky Florida heat that produces such talent. Liberty City’s dire economic conditions, and the limited means for escaping them, ratchet up the stakes for succeeding at football there.

Warriors of Liberty City, a documentary series on the team and the city that begins Sept. 16 on Starz, is the latest project from LeBron James and business partner Maverick Carter. The two were also behind the Vince Carter documentary The Carter Effect and the fictionalized series Survivor’s Remorse.

The Warriors were founded by former 2 Live Crew rapper Luther (Uncle Luke) Campbell to provide a safe outlet for kids living in one of the roughest and most impoverished neighborhoods in Miami. What began as a program for organized football 30 years ago has blossomed into a full-service community outreach program that encompasses baseball, basketball, soccer, cheerleading and dance to provide refuge for kids year-round. The program also provides tutoring.

In six episodes directed by Vice World of Sports executive producer Evan Rosenfeld, viewers are introduced to life in Miami’s Liberty City housing projects, which were also the setting for the Oscar-winning film Moonlight. But where Moonlight was quiet and introspective, Warriors dances with the energy of young black boys taking off for touchdowns as fast as their little legs can carry them. Their high school and middle school cohorts mull over their futures while hoping to lead their school teams to victory.

Rosenfeld repeatedly returns to vistas that communicate Miami’s glaring wealth inequality. The camera hangs over Liberty City before panning out to reveal a downtown full of high-rise condos, snazzy luxury cars and expensive boutiques. They’re only a few miles apart, but they might as well be in separate countries. For instance, the Lucases, a family of six, are temporarily split into two households after Hurricane Irma brings havoc to Miami. Tysheka Lucas is a maid at a luxury hotel but loses her only source of income for weeks when the hotel has to close to repair storm-related damage.

The unspoken tragedy behind Warriors is that it shows how difficult it is for the kids who don the Liberty City uniform to climb out of poverty.

The power of Warriors of Liberty City is reinforced by the programming decision to begin its run just as America To Me, another Starz docuseries, reaches its midpoint. People concerned about racism and inequality know that black Americans’ social ills can be traced to slavery, Jim Crow, segregation in housing and education, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, voter suppression, transgenerational trauma and other forms of broad, systemic oppression. The value in watching both America to Me and Warriors of Liberty City concurrently is witnessing how those forces affect black lives in ways that vary by class and geography. Instead of offering a macro view of complex, interconnected and, frankly, hugely daunting problems, America to Me and Warriors of Liberty City offer glimpses of the daily struggles of individuals whose lives are shaped by powerful external forces.

In Warriors, especially, the acknowledgment of these issues is implicit. Rosenfeld relies on the viewer to fill in the blanks while he follows various members of the Warriors and their cheer squad. This is especially apparent as the show follows the father of Warriors player Lavalrick “Little Dread” Lucas Jr. The father, Lavalrick “Dread” Lucas, seems to be self-medicating with alcohol almost every time Rosenfeld’s camera finds him. Dread struggles to be a good father to Little Dread because he didn’t grow up with his own father. The pain of his absence is palpable.

The unspoken tragedy behind Warriors is that it shows how difficult it is for the kids who don the Liberty City uniform to climb out of poverty, to the point that securing an NFL contract seems no more far-fetched than, say, graduating from college with a job that pays a living wage. Playing football provides them with identifiable goals, with stability, with access to adults who clearly care about more than whether or not they’re running their routes correctly. But it comes at a potentially heartbreaking cost, given what we know about research that traces playing tackle football before age 12 to behavioral and cognitive problems later in life.

Every kid deserves a decent childhood with the lessons Campbell and the other Warriors coaches model. They shouldn’t have to pay the cost of potential long-term brain damage to get them.

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.