In no small part because the 2020 fall football season was heavily impacted by COVID-19 — some schedules truncated, others canceled entirely — it feels like a long time has passed since I last watched a movie or TV documentary about a plucky group of gridiron underdogs, their loving-yet-belligerent coach and the community that lives and dies under the glare of Friday night lights.
The pipeline for seasons of Netflix’s Last Chance U and its myriad imitators may have temporarily dried up, but Last Chance U still looms large in my mind as a representation of the best in sports-related nonfiction storytelling. Last Chance U looms more in the background of Emily Kuester and Brad Lichtenstein’s documentary Messwood, as both a plot point and an unavoidable comparison.
Good as a 95-minute feature, could have been great as an eight-hour series.
Messwood is a thoroughly engaging sports documentary full of interesting characters and an intriguing backdrop. But, in a 2021 storytelling landscape, there’s a way to most properly serve the nuance of this tale, and it’s not as a 95-minute film. Boasting Steve James among its producers, Messwood has the material to be Last Chance U meets America to Me instead of “just” a good documentary feature.
Like most of Lichtenstein’s films, including this year’s When Claude Got Shot, Messwood is set in the racially and economically segregated world of Milwaukee, where mere blocks can separate crime-ridden urban space from opulent suburban sprawl, and rarely the twain shall meet.
An exception is the “Messwood” high school football team, a shared program unifying athletes at the predominantly Black Messmer High and the predominantly white Shorewood High. The Greyhounds are one part sociological Petri dish and one part byproduct of declining football resources at both schools. The experiment, which began in 2001, yielded a conference title in 2018.
Kuester and Lichtenstein began following the team in the fall of 2019 as coach Antoine Davis is staring down a roster with high expectations and the loss of too many starters for anything to be certain. The documentary follows the team, which gets off to a decidedly bumpy start, as well as several individual players, who are learning (or realizing for the purposes of a running camera) that just because they have a uniform in common doesn’t mean that Shorewood and Messmer students are living in the same world.
A documentary like Messwood rises or falls on access to a likable and varied group of on-camera subjects. Here, it mostly succeeds. It doesn’t always feel like the directors got the players they needed to focus on the football side of the story, with game footage (used sparingly) seeming to focus too frequently on athletes who we don’t know at all. But at least they have “gentle giant” Piarus, a towering right guard who only started playing late in high school and, with still tentative interest in the game, is beginning to draw the attention of colleges. Piarus illustrates a gap between the Messmer players, for whom football is sometimes the only opportunity to get out of Milwaukee, and the Shorewood boys, for whom college is an expected privilege.
Other subjects include Max, a lovably goofy offensive lineman whose family has basically adopted Amarion, a who goes to Shorewood even if his family seems to live on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. Max and his mother want to support Amarion, but they can’t begin to fathom or help with the spiritual wounds he feels from the murder of his uncle. Milwaukee’s violent side has also scarred running back Fred, playing in honor of his late brother.
It’s all held together by Coach Davis, one of those prototypical tough-love authority figures a documentary like this practically demands. He’s dedicated to his team and to his sport with a near-myopia, which comes out when he makes statements like “I think in society we talk about race too much,” one of several observations from the Black coach that leave the off-camera directors slightly flummoxed.
It’s a snapshot of contemporary America that the Black players and parents in the documentary explain the racial tensions surrounding the football team without hesitation or questioning, while the white parents deny it completely and Max accepts it blandly, but with general obliviousness. It’s a provocative conversation, but one that Messwood can have only to a limited degree because the Shorewood contribution to the documentary is both minimal and nonrepresentative, given that Max and his family appear to be more lower-middle-class than some of the lakeside neighborhoods we see in passing.
This, of course, is presumably why Messwood is a 95-minute movie and not an eight-hour documentary. James had astonishing access with Starz’s America to Me, but it was the kind of access achieved after much negotiation with the district administrators, and a kind of access they may ultimately have regretted.
One can easily pinpoint the types of access Kuester and Lichtenstein weren’t able to get. It isn’t just that they have regular contributions from only five or six members of the football team and only a dozen or so players appear to have given image clearances at all. And it isn’t just that the perspective is weighted heavily toward the Messmer players, as if the Shorewood community had a meeting and decided in advance that they were unlikely to look good here. The documentary is lacking principals, teachers, any sort of officials capable of giving a 35,000-foot perspective on what the “Messwood” experiment has accomplished.
It isn’t until the titles at the end of the documentary that we learn that Coach Davis has been in charge of the team for only four years, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that it takes less than five minutes into the film for him to blanch at its entire premise. “Not every situation is racial. You’re trying to make a story out of nothing,” he says, before Kuester and Lichtenstein spend the next hour-plus making it extremely clear that this isn’t a story made out of nothing, not in a community that faced controversy over a shelved high school production of To Kill a Mockingbird or a team where Black players were referred to in racist terms mid-game, by players on the other team, to no response from their white teammates.
The documentary’s time frame lets you know that this is a school year that would eventually be affected by COVID and then by the racial justice protests of the summer of 2020, but that’s wedged into the documentary as a postscript so minimal it might as well not have been included at all. How did those protests, including the events in nearby Kenosha, impact Coach Davis’ sense of what the “story” here is? We don’t really see, nor do any of the featured players offer feedback on their altered lives.
Ultimately, Messwood is a good film, despite its limitations, despite the denials, absences and evasions. It’s just a film that has phantom traces of the much better, or fuller, story that it could have been.