Basketball is "the sport that best defines the 21st-century American experience," argues Brett Kashmere, talking about the subject of his documentary From Deep, which will screen at the Sidewinder Tavern on Saturday, August 16. The cinematic essay explores basketball, hip-hop, and the way the progressive narrative of race relations in the United States coincides with the commercialization of music and sports.
Kashmere describes the game's origins as a psychological survival strategy for snowed-in New England boys and points out that the sport was invented at the same time the "separate but equal" concept entered constitutional law. When the game turned professional, only white people could play -- but the sport was integrated during the twentieth century. By the 1990s, black players dominated the NBA and white owners controlled the teams.
The film demonstrates that the coinciding rise of big-business slam-dunk competitions and hip-hop bravado on the court echoes the fascinating history of the Harlem Globetrotters. Abe Saperstein, a Jewish businessman in Chicago, founded the black showbiz team, trying to capitalize on the trendiness of the Harlem Renaissance. Theatrics and black cultural references saved the sport from public disinterest in both eras.
From Deep highlights Hollywood's two stereotypical images of players: the stoic Midwestern white kid (see Larry Bird and Hoosiers) and the street-hardened black youth (see Magic Johnson and Glory Road) -- both embattled by a culture hungry to see race wars play out in sports. The film analyzes archival footage, music videos and Hollywood movies about basketball. The imagery and the script are structured to be a sly tip of the hat to the hip-hop remix: From Deep's narrators sample memoirs, histories and theoretical essays about race, identity, capitalism and sports.
All of it underscored by handheld documentary footage of playground basketball. The movie celebrates the street game as the sport at its purest: raw, improvisational, and untarnished by economic exploitation --perhaps like the structure of the movie itself.
In advance of the screening, Westword spoke with Kashmere about his film.
Westword: Talk about your process for writing and compiling the script?
The script for From Deep evolved over a long period of time -- several years of reading, research, notation, thinking about the game. It took shape as I was editing the rough cut, once I found a working structure for the vast amount of material that I shot and collected for the film.
How much is you? How much is other text?
The majority of the main narration is my own writing, with a handful of quotes sprinkled in; although, there's a secondary voice-over which is comprised of excerpts from a single text source. The second part of the film, titled "The Funky Dialectic," traces the merger of basketball and hip hop culture and the rise of Michael Jordan and is annotated with on-screen text drawn from a different source, which I've modified and added to.
Why did you chose to use two narrators? How did you decide which text to assign each?
There are two voices in the piece. The main narration is my own, that is, it acts as a surrogate for the expression of my own thoughts, critical analysis and historical research. It provides information and reflection, and is intentionally pensive, at times uncertain and speculative. It's not intended to be authoritative. Rather, it's meant to serve as a kind of anti-"Voice of God" and draws on ideas that are culled from a large cross-section of writing on basketball, particularly the cultural history of the game. What about the second narrator?
The second narration is from an older African American male voice and features a small selection of excerpts from a book by John Edgar Wideman called Hoop Roots. In my opinion, Hoop Roots is the best thing that's been written about basketball. It resonated with me for different reasons.
Read on for more from Kashmere.
Talk about the book?
It resonated with me for different of reasons. For one thing, it's a memoir about growing up in Pittsburgh (where I currently live), in the 1950s and learning the game on the playground. It's about a lot more than that, too, but I was particularly attracted to how it articulated a vernacular poetics of basketball. Those excerpts specifically accompany sequences of playground and pickup basketball, which we traveled around the country to shoot for the film.
I grew up in Canada, in a different era -- the 1980s. My experience of the game is different. I wanted that to be transparent in the film, without it becoming what the film is about. That is how I arrived at the strategy of having two voice-overs, performed by two different actors. I use two narrators because I wanted there to be a clear and obvious contrast of perspectives.
Wideman is the true expert. Those passages are meant to carry the weight of first-hand authority. The other voice is me, trying to sort all of this out: as a Canadian living in America, as a white person loving basketball and hip-hop, which are both very important to me, and which have shaped my identity. I wanted to say something about that in a way that is respectful and self-aware.
What sort of model do you use to understand history?
From Deep is part video essay, part audiovisual mixtape. It's also a documentary in some sense, and draws from the tradition of personal narrative. Some might call it creative nonfiction, although that's more of a literary term. Others might call it an experimental documentary. I think of it as a hybrid work, and a meshing of my interests in experimental and documentary cinema. It has a three-part structure, which is fairly chronological, but I wouldn't describe it as linear. It uses geography as a portal to access history.
Talk about form, re-purposing, remixing and how that plays out within the film.
There are two main threads that weave throughout From Deep. The first traces the merger of hip hop and basketball in the mid-'80s and is curated from a range of sources, including movies, archival footage, music videos, video games, hip-hop music, highlight reels, newscasts and so on.
The second thread is more ethnographic in nature and highlights the social dimensions of the game. Playground basketball is represented in contrast to the professional game (as spectator sport), emphasizing the participatory, inclusive aspects of pick-up ball. In these sections the camera becomes part of the action. These self-shot sequences are meant to act as moving snapshots of the game, reflecting its full diversity across many different states and regions. Again, I wanted to establish a contrast between how basketball is typically represented in popular culture, particularly in mainstream commercial cinema, and what the game looks like in real life, right now.
Talk about your editing strategy.
I think the editing is in some ways indebted to the strategies of DJ'ing, and mixtape-making, the idea of pulling from multiple sources and styles, idiosyncratically, with the goal of saying something new and unique and doing it in a way that is both thoughtful and fun.
Who do you see as the ideal audience?
I hope From Deep will be of interest to casual sports fans, basketball diehards and players, hip hop fans, documentary viewers, people interested in cultural history, American and African-American history, contemporary art and experimental film. Edutainment is the name of the game. It's designed to be informative and to create dialogue. People can expect an accessible but non-conventional, wide-angle take on the sport that best defines the twenty-first century American experience; one that is rich in audiovisual pleasure.
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See From Deep at The Sidewinder, 4485 Logan Street, at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, August 16. There is an $8 suggested donation; for more information go to: http://www.nothingto-seehere.com/ or call 303-295-1105.