In recent years, several sports documentary filmmakers have made some celebrated documentaries about winners. In 2008, you had two major ones: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, about a legendary tie football game in 1968. More Than a Game followed the high school basketball team that made LeBron James famous. Some subject matter sometimes went beyond winning on the field or court. Sports can change lives for the better, as the 2011 Academy Award-winning documentary Undefeated proved about inner city youths saved by a football coach.
But compelling sports stories don’t always have to be about the winners. With their new documentary Lenny Cooke, the fraternal team of Ben and Joshua Safdie present a promising high school basketball player who, back in 2001, was once ranked number one on a national level, when scouts were also looking at LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. But, as no one knows Cooke’s name today, one can imagine where he ended up.
The brothers Safdie are not here to make a portrait of a loser, however. Cooke just happened to be one of the many mortals chewed up by the pressures of the NBA machine. Cooke was so prominent a player, ESPN cameras followed him around while he was still in high school.
Early in the film, Cooke takes ESPN reporter Tom Farrey to a rundown section of Bushwick with an entourage of friends following. Cooke walks Farrey over to a two-story building and points to some boarded up windows where says he grew up. “It’s a four-family house, knowwhatimsayin?” He notes his family shared the home with “a couple of crackheads. We had the dirty Puerto Ricans” before “the rats took over.”
He also shares dreams of building a movie theater and a YMCA right nearby. But it’s an empty aspiration modeled after superstar player Magic Johnson. Farrey points to Cooke’s jacket emblazoned with almost two dozen NBA team logos. “Who do you want to play on that whole coat there?”
“I want to play for whoever gonna be a lottery pick.”
It’s that cavalier attitude that will ultimately sink this promising 6-foot-6-inch athlete. Meanwhile, the pressure mounts, not just from ESPN camera crews, but also his friends and family. Even an anonymous bag handler at a train station recognizes Cooke’s physique as the epitome of a born basketballer. “Get that money, baby!” he tells Cooke. “School is always gonna be there.” After the man walks away, Cooke turns away and says, “Shut yo ass up.”
The filmmakers use a vérité style capturing Cooke at such tell-tale, casual moments that reveal a doomed contradiction in a young man who may not be following a dream he has not entirely set his heart on. When he finally decides to make himself available to the NBA draft, after 18 months of not even playing basketball, he quietly weeps at a press conference during the announcement. He is never picked and ends up playing in minor leagues to ever-dwindling audiences.
The Safdie brothers follow Cooke from his high school heyday up until the present day. The chronological narrative serves to provide some subtle drama for those who do not follow basketball or know Cooke’s story. The filmmakers, who are embarking on their first documentary feature with this film (earlier works include the mumblecore films The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddylonglegs), prove they have a sensitive eye for revealing scenes. Who knows how many hours of footage they had of Cooke over the course of 13 years, but they know how to chop it down to create a dynamic, cohesive story and still make their subject endearing. They do not offer any voice-over narrative or ask any off-camera questions. They are there to mostly observe and document.
There is some manipulation in the choice of music, which first kicks off with “Shook Ones Part II” by Mobb Deep, but later turns into the hard bop and free jazz cacophony of Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef. Also, they sometimes allow the camera to linger a little too long during Cooke’s 30th birthday celebration, where he ends up singing and breaking down in tears as midnight arrives and most of his friends have all gone home. Then comes a jarringly surreal but superfluous encounter between the elder Cooke and his younger self that hammers its point harder than necessary.
For the most part, though, the Safdies remain reserved and nonjudgmental as they present a captivating testament to the cruel corporate culture of professional sports and one of its tragic casualties. Though it can feel exasperating at times, Lenny Cooke comes across as an important story, handled with enough distance that shows sensitivity to its subject while offering an objective critique of what broke him down.
Lenny Cooke runs 90 minutes and is unrated (expect some real language). It opens exclusively in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Jan. 24, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.