Currently on Quibi is ‘Blackballed,’ a powerful documentary series that examines the cultural context of race in America through the lens of one of the most explosive events in recent sports history – the Donald Sterling expulsion. The series highlights the five days during the 2014 NBA playoffs, when Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and the LA Clippers led an unprecedented movement of athletes to hold racism accountable.
When Donald Sterling’s infamous, racist audio recording was leaked to the press in April 2014, every player, coach and employee of the Los Angeles Clippers was faced with the same question: How do you stand up in the face bigotry and ignorance when the entire world is watching and everything is on the line?
Now, for the first time, Chris Paul, Doc Rivers, DeAndre Jordan, JJ Redick, and Adam Silver along with some of the biggest names from the worlds of sports, politics, business and media, explain how they asserted their power, leading to the most definitive and unprecedented punishment in sports history.
BLACKBALLED is directed by Michael Jacobs and executive produced by Chris Gary and Ryan Simon, Sam Widdoes and Peter Cambor for District 33, Will Packer and Kelly Smith for Will Packer Media, and James Widdoes.
Blackfilm.com spoke exclusively with Mike Jacobs on directing this film and getting the coach and players to communicate about this.
How did this come to you the project?
Michael Jacobs: My longtime producing partner Chris Gary and I have worked together on a couple of ESPN 30 for 30s and on a forthcoming documentary for Disney plus, with Marvel Comics. He had a relationship with some other producers who had a relationship with Doc Rivers; and they had Doc Rivers on tape, on this sizzle. And it was the first time I’d ever heard the story told by doc in the first person about what he and his team went through. I just was like, “this is an awesome project and a really unique opportunity to hear from this team and these players for the first time ever.” So at that time, those producers were in talks with Quibi, and they put me up to direct. And it all just move very quickly from there.
Did you go in knowing you would have a lot of footage but trim in down for Quibi’s format as opposed to the 10 part series ESPN just did for The Last Dance?
Michael Jacobs: Yeah, great question. That was one of the unique challenges of this project. In that I really wanted the film to hold together as a standalone, feature length documentary. But releasing it in chapters, it was really important to make sure that we had the right kind of episodic structure. And so there was just some experimentation required, as far as making sure that we could have a really strong beginning, middle and end to each episode, while also staying true to the core narrative.
And doing all that while also contextualizing this moment in time for our audience, from a basketball perspective; like what was going on in that 2014 season in the height of the playoffs, and who were the teams, who were the players, and then also culturally what was going on in America in 2014. So it was pretty complicated to figure out the right kind of nuance to getting the story, to track in all of those different ways. But it really exciting because Quibi is this new platform and this new storytelling medium and it allowed us to experiment with different episodes positioned in different ways. When you make a feature documentary, it all has to stitch together really tightly. And in this case, there’s a little bit of looseness because you don’t necessarily have to begin an episode where a prior episode ended. You can jump in time, or you can maybe leave the audience with more of an emotional punctuation than, say, a narrative beat, and then you just pick up back where you where you left off or you can enter into a different thought and hope that your audience stays with you.
When it came to the editing, did you shoot it as a narrative and was it more challenging knowing that you would have to set it chapter by chapter and keep the people interested?
Michael Jacobs: That’s exactly right. With me and the editors and the producers, we sort of put together a big board, like you do with a feature film where you get your note cards out and you just put it all up on the board. We bucketed storytelling elements into different episodes. That gave us the initial structure in which to approach assembling the edit. And then from there, you borrow a sound bite from one episode and put it in another because it makes a better argument or it supports your thesis in a different way. Or you’re looking for just emotional impact, or you’re just looking for those punctuation that can take you either out of an episode or bring you into a new episode. We had that extra bucket of those powerful soundbites, or useful soundbites and we just experimented in the different placement of those soundbites across the different episodes until we felt like we had the right balance between core narrative, emotional connection and just a watchable consistency and cohesiveness throughout.
When it comes to the participants, you had Doc Rivers but you were also able to get a lot of the players. Were they easily attainable to get in front of the camera and relive that moment in time?
Michael Jacobs: Yeah. What was great for me is they had already had committed by the time I came aboard. When I saw Doc’s sizzle of when the producers just put together the first sit down interview with him. I just knew right away that this this is a gifted storyteller. I can see why he’s such a great coach. He’s so intelligent and so comfortable with who he is as both a former player, as a coach, as a leader, as a father figure, and as a father in real life as well. He just brings so much of that to the table and his willingness to share and be open and be honest.
Then I heard that Chris Paul was willing to also participate. He’s someone else who has a lot of those same leadership qualities. When we sat down with him, he offered a lot of the same keen interest in sharing his story and an openness and a willingness to talk about real stuff, stuff that they had to go through and that they were faced with in the moment. He also shared moments from his personal life that he’s dealt with. And just as it went from there, and more and more players showed up. It just became this great opportunity for me to just listen to these guys and have these conversations. I was so overwhelmed with their willingness to just sit and be open and share with me experiences from that moment in time, which was extremely difficult for them and also a moment that they haven’t had a chance to really talk a lot about.
Had you tried to reach out to get Donald’s side of things? Could you get the ex girlfriend, V. Stiviano or anyone who knew Donald that could talk about his character as opposed to what’s coming from the players?
Michael Jacobs: Yeah, we thought about it. As a filmmaker course after I have to do all of my due diligence, and we thought about approaching Donald and trying to see if we could get V. Stiviano on camera; but the more we thought about it, the more we said to ourselves that Donald has said enough. When this story was first written, it was a lot about Donald. There were conversations about race and there were conversations about power dynamics, but Donald’s voice was was the loudest in part because, it was his voice on the tape. But so much of that storytelling was sort of Donald’s centric and sensational and we just felt like here are these players who we’ve never heard from before.
It just felt a little bit more intentional as filmmakers to just give them the microphone and give them the opportunity without any sort of noise from from Donald Sterling and his camp, and we were guided by that and just said that Donald said enough. You’re going to hear his voice in the film and you’re going to see plenty of images from him. It’s a challenge as filmmakers sometimes to make those choices but I wanted to make them on really on behalf of the subjects, to do right by them and say “This is your story and your story alone.”
How cooperative was the NBA in allowing Adam Silver and some of the players, who are still active, to speak on the record?
Michael Jacobs: it was delicate. When we were in talks with Adam Silver’s people, the first thing they said is, “We don’t really want to talk about the Donald Sterling thing anymore. But we’re willing to do it.” They messaged us that like they don’t love talking about this, but they will. I think in that case in particular, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the founder of Quibi, made a phone call to the NBA and was able to make his case about why it was important that we had their inclusion and their support. And from what I’ve heard, once we sent them the the edit in order for them to sign off on the footage of theirs that we use, they were really happy with it. Adam Silver looks great in this and he should be commended for the job he did in the moment and in the documentary, but it’s always delicate.
It’s delicate with these athletes too. These are professional athletes with high profile platforms and reputations that are important to them. And like you mentioned in a couple of cases Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, JJ Reddick, these guys are still in the league. It’s not always easy to speak as freely and openly as they would like and I would say in Matt Barnes’ case because he is retired, we knew that he was going to speak a lot more freely, and feel more comfortable doing so. So it’s delicate and it’s really like I said, it’s my job to be a good listener and to try to have this conversation with narrative in mind and with seeking some emotional truths. I’m hoping for that to come across for the audience.
The last chapter is shorter than the others. Do you feel that ending was satisfactory as opposed to the chapter before?
Michael Jacobs: It’s a good question, especially in this case. We’re trying to sum up like what this all meant. What this meant culturally is this moment in time, what this meant in America, what this meant in professional sports. So we tried to really lean into the the scandal as a flashpoint and as a real important historical moment where the players stood up and spoke out against injustice. They made their protest. They made their voices heard. They were supported by a large institution. We try to make the point that like that carries forward to today. That NBA athletes and particularly African American men in basketball have this loud voice and have this voice and this platform that they can use. That’s what we’ve tried to leave the audience with. It’s so challenging because there’s so many parts and pieces to professional sports and politics, that I think that’s probably why it’s six minutes and not 60 minutes in the last episode. There’s just so many different cans of worms you could open up around what’s going on out there today. Our hope is with that final chapter that people see and appreciate how the NBA and these players have rallied around this moment and used it and never really I’ve never looked back.