Saturday, 7 March 2020

Movie review: Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story, dirs Nate Adams and Adam Carolla (2020)

This documentary about the career of the first African-American to qualify for the Indy 500 car race – which is held every year in Indianapolis, Indiana, a Midwestern state of the US – chronicles events in the 70s, 80s and 90s. There is a good deal of drama, the story is well-crafted, the editing is solid, and Ribbs himself is compelling.

This is important as, due to the nature of the medium, a lot of the narrative is delivered by people who are interviewed on-camera. When he’s shown sitting in a room full of cars, Ribbs gives you the impression of a being person who is not prone to embellishing the facts. On the other hand he’s a fighter, and his passion is evident in his voice even though, when the shooting for the film was made, he was a lot older than he was when the events he is talking about took place.

In retrospect, he was a hothead but given the sport he was competing in that is entirely understandable. Motorsports is for people who are driven to excel but they are not always intellectuals. On the other hand, sports stars are often worth listening to precisely because their experiences – when conveyed in a cultural product of this kind – help us to understand ourselves. Sport stretches over boundaries between the self and the community. We are social animals, and the position of the individual vis-à-vis the collective is where politics comes alive; it’s fraught with both possibilities and with danger. Spectator sport enables the gifted among us to do what they are good at doing but along with that privilege come other things as well.

Most Americans who follow motorsport are white. Racism is an especially pernicious kind of injustice because once you suspect it exists it is very hard, in real life, to know when it is operating and when it is not, so you can get a lot of false positives regardless of how perceptive you are, or how objective you try to be.

The makers of this documentary made the testimonies of many of the major players available to the viewer, but some are left out. A journalist might argue that leaving out the words of a person in the story who is accused of being racist – for example, a motor mechanic who puts a faulty part in an engine in order to make it malfunction on the track – is to do violence to the truth. But this movie is not journalism although it uses race footage that would have originally screened on TV in the nightly news. A film like this was made in Australia: the Adam Goodes story. Like it, the story of Willy Ribbs is one of an individual’s fight against both blatant and subtle discrimination.

Both stories have human rights at their core and there is something inherently interesting in such stories; they are as old as history. But while this film is of a very high calibre it isn’t getting talked about much. I only found out about it because I monitor the Netflix hashtag on Twitter, so I am constantly looking for new things to watch. You won’t see this movie listed on the Netflix homepage; I had to do a search for it. Unlike a lot of what you find on Netflix, it is worth taking the time to watch.

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