2021 Oscars Shorts Review: Documentaries

The documentary shorts nominated for this year’s Oscars had a combined running time over three hours. So it’s understandable why I chose to see the Animation and Live-Action shorts one day while seeing the Documentary nominees another day. The documentary nominees for this year are an impressive range of films. All have a unique topic of focus that gets one thinking. Some were positive stories while some were more on negative issues. All have something to say. And here are my thoughts on this year’s nominees:

Audible (dir. Matthew Ogens): The film focuses on the football team on the Maryland School For The Deaf. For sixteen years, they’ve had the best deaf football team in the nation. But the film begins as they show their first loss in sixteen years. Although the film showcases the school’s students and the football team, the prime focus is on student Amaree McKenstry-Hall. We see Amaree as he bonds with the team and conversates with the students. Sometimes it can get heated. We learn that he and the team play in memory of a former student who committed suicide after being send to a regular school. We learn of his family background of how his father left the family shortly after his birth. Soon he reunites with his father, who’s now recovered from his drug addiction and is the head pastor of a church. Then the homecoming game happens. This is to be the last game for many of the players.

This story couldn’t have come at a better time, just as CODA is a heavy favorite to win Best Picture! And just last year, The Sound Of Metal was a Best Picture nominee! The unique thing about this is it’s about deaf athletes. You learn about how deaf football players play, you learn how they communicate. However you also get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a deaf teenage. You see they have the same fun stuff you and I had as a teenager, but you also see they have problems, concerns and insecurities all their own. It’s not only about deaf teenagers and how they live out their teenage years, but it also shows us about Amaree and his own issues, his own battles. It’s a story that goes through so many angles, but is very insightful, and very much an eye-opener.

Lead Me Home (dirs. Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk): The film focuses on the homeless situation in the cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle between 2015 to 2019. The film also focuses on some individuals whom they interview. They’re various men and women, and one trans female. They come from various races. The come from various backgrounds. The interviewees are asked three main questions: their names and ages, how they ended up as homeless, and would they live in a home. The people range in ages from 26 to their 50’s. How they became homeless are a mixed bag of scenarios from drug addiction to a criminal past to the trans female disowned by the family to abusive family scenarios to the mental illness of some one messed over by the welfare system. Many would like to live in their own house, but one does not. He says every time he moves into a place, he finds himself back to being homeless soon. He would like his own van.

This is an inciteful film about the homeless situation we rarely see. We see the people interviewed on how they deal with whatever sleeping situation they can fix up, their bathing or showering opportunities they can seize, the food they’re lucky to eat and whatever counseling they get. In some cases, we’re shown the homeless in their surrounding areas, and the homeless camps in that area are large in size. We’re also shown how the homeless are in debate in their civic and state rallies and how some citizens speak their disgust at them. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are some with Trump-fueled rage at the time. The film doesn’t exactly have too much of a beginning, middle and end. Nevertheless this film is a good showcase to a problem that we don’t really know a lot about, but think we do.

The Queen Of Basketball (dir. Ben Proudfoot): Lusia Harris is possibly the greatest basketball player you’ve never heard of. Born in Mississippi in 1955, she grew up poor in a segregated town. At the time, there were very few opportunities for African-American girls. However basketball for her was a way out. She would watch NBA games with her brothers and they would try to imitate the moves. Lusia stood out with her moves and her 6’3″ height. Her basketball prowess helped her pursue post secondary education at Delta State. During her first season (1974-75), the goal was to dethrone the Mighty Macs of Immaculata University who were considered the best female college basketball team ever. It paid off as Lusia and the girls were able to win over Immaculata and a new era had begun. The following year, Lusia and the Deltas did it again. Her prowess allowed her to represent the US at the Montreal Olympics where women’s basketball was being held for the first time. The US team won silver behind the Soviets. The following year, Delta repeated their win, duplicating Immaculata’s feat, and Lusia was crowned MVP. But it ended right there. There was no WNBA for Lusia to go to. She was also diagnosed as being bipolar over time. She was offered to play for an NBA team and was offered big publicity, but she turned it down. Instead she devoted her life to administration at Delta State, coaching and teaching. She married shortly after she graduated and bore four children. Looking back she has no regrets.

This appears to be a great story sold in a simple manner, but when you look at it, it makes for a great story worth telling. It often appears like the story of a pioneer in female basketball. Like she’s one of the many women who brought women’s basketball to where it is now. It showcases her achievements and her big moments and her post-basketball life. In that same manner, it’s told through her. It’s like it’s her story and it’s rightful that she is the narrator of this story. It makes sense as she’s the one who made it happen. In recent time, it also appears like a retrospect. Back on January 18th of this year, Lusia died at the age of 66. The documentary almost appears like a case where Lusia is looking back on her life. I’m glad she had the chance to do this documentary. A great way to remember her. That’s why I give it my Will Win prediction.

Three Songs For Benazir (dirs. Gulistan and Elizabeth Mirzaei): Shaista Khan is a man living in a camp for Afghanis displaced during the war in Kabul. He is recently married to a woman named Benazir, and he sings a song of his love to her. He has plans to start a family but he also has ambitions to join the army along with starting a family. He doesn’t know how hard of a balance this will be. His father does not look upon his goal of joining the army as a good thing. Finally he is given the opportunity to join the army as he will have a meeting with a sergeant. He celebrates with friends and with Benazir, who is pregnant in expecting their first child. He again sings to her. However when he goes to the military base, he learns he needs to be endorsed by a family member if he’s to join. Strict rules in the Afghani military. When he goes to his father and brother, they refuse. Shaista is distraught. The film flashes ahead four years. Shaista is now in an addictions treatment centre. Benazir comes to visit. He is overjoyed at seeing her and his two songs. He sings one last song to her.

This is a poignant documentary. Shaista is simply an Afghani man who wants to make something of himself for himself, his family and for his family to be. We should also remember that Afghanistan is the poorest nation in the continent of Asia. What you see in Shaista appears to be the common struggle of the Afghani people as they try to pick up their lives now that the war is over. Sometimes the losses end up bigger and more hurtful in the end. Nevertheless the film ends with an image of hope. It’s needed now especially since we learned six months ago that the Taliban have returned to power. This is a film that does get you thinking and hoping.

When We Were Bullies (dir. Jay Rosenblatt): While director Rosenblatt was watching a bullying film from the 50’s, a single incident brought back a memory of an incident when he was in the fifth grade. That was when he started a fight with a boy named Richard, who was the odd kid in the class, and other classmates joined in. This Richard was also the inspiration for his first film The Smell Of Burning Ants (1994). Soon he wanted to investigate more into this. What happened to Richard? Do the other students from the class remember that moment? Did they participate? Are they remorseful of it? What does the teacher feel of it? He goes to the school to look into more pictures. He meets with other former classmates at a school’s reunion. Over time, he was able to talk more and find out how they felt about Richard and the incident. He even learned his teacher from his grade is alive and mostly well and he’s able to talk with her. She’s able to give her opinions on bullying and even mentioned her late daughter was bullied too. Later Jay reveals he lost a brother the year before so he was carrying burdens too.

This is a surprising documentary. It’s surprising how one image can suddenly trigger back an unfortunate memory of the past of when you were young and stupid. It’s full of clever imagery mixed with animation as it goes about telling the story. The visuals and the audio make for a good mix. You can call it what you want. Some will say this is a very inciteful story, especially sine bullying is a hot topic. Some will say the film was done in a ridiculous manner. Some will even say this film was a work of Jay’s egotism. Nevertheless it does get one intrigued about human nature. Even its ugliest sides. That’s why I give it my Should Win pick.

Additional Note: Although we don’t know who this Richard is or see what his face was back then, we do learn that he’s still alive and he’s actually a film producer.

And there you have it! That’s my review of the Best Documentary Short nominees. We’ll see on Sunday not only which one wins, but if it’s one of the eight categories whose award won’t be broadcast!

Len Bias Remembered

Len Bias was drafted by the Celtics during the 1986 NBA Draft. He was expected to be one of the greats. But all promise ended in tragedy two days later.
22 year-old Len Bias was drafted by the Celtics during the 1986 NBA Draft. He was expected to be one of the greats. He was even compared to Michael Jordan. But all promise ended in tragedy two days later.

Today is the birthday of basketball player Len Bias. He’d be 50 years old today. It’s one thing for a life to be cut short early but it’s another to see how much has happened since.

Bias was born in Landover, Maryland and grew up there attending high school in Hyattsville. His nickname since childhood was ‘Frosty.’ He then attended the University of Maryland upon graduation. His freshman year didn’t start well and most coaches saw him as raw and undisciplined. The 6’8″ Bias would develop into an All-American player in the latter years. His junior year proved impressive as he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring and was named the ACC’s Player Of The Year. His senior season was highlighted by a performance against top-ranked North Carolina where he scored 35 points including 7 in the last 3 minutes of regulation and 4 in overtime. At the end of that season, Bias collected his second ACC Player Of The Year award and was named to two All America teams.

Right in his senior year, basketball fans were very impressed with Len Bias. His most impressive traits were his amazing jumping ability, his physical stature and his ability to create plays and was considered one of the most impressive players in the United States. NBA scouts in 1986 already had seen him as the most complete forward of the Class of 1986. Even Boston Celtics scout Ed Badger said of him:  “He’s maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time. I’m not saying he’s as good as Michael Jordan, but he’s an explosive and exciting kind of player like that.”

On June 17, 1986, the 1986 NBA Draft took place at Madison Square Gardens. Bias was the second overall pick and he was picked for the Boston Celtics. He admitted that he always wanted to play for the Celtics: “and my dream’s come true.” He and his family returned back to his home in suburban Maryland later that day. The following day, Bias and his father flew to Boston for an NBA club draft acceptance and a product endorsement signing ceremony with the Celtics coaches and management. Bias was also in talks with Reebok for a five-year endorsement package worth $1.6 million. It seemed like it was all uphill from there.

After returning home to Washington, Bias retrieved his newly leased sports car and drove back to his dorm room at the University of Maryland campus. He left campus at around 2am on June 19 and drove to an off-campus gathering, which he attended briefly before returning to his dorm in Washington Hall at 3am. It was at that time Bias and his friends used cocaine. According to friends accounts, Bias felt pains in his chest, had a seizure and collapsed around 6:30am that morning while talking to teammate Terry Long. At 6:32am while friend Brian Tribble made the 911 call, Bias was unconscious and not breathing. That was echoed in Tribble’s haunting 911 message: “This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die. Seriously sir. Please come quick.” All attempts at resuscitation from paramedics in the ambulance were unsuccessful. Additional attempts to revive Bias were made upon his arrival at Leland Memorial Hospital in the Emergency Room but it was all to no avail. At 8:55 on the morning of June 19, 1986, Leonard Kevin Bias was pronounced dead. He was only 22.

Len’s death was a shocking blow to those who knew him and those who followed basketball. Four days after his death, more than 11,000 people packed the Cole Field House at the University of Maryland for a memorial service. Speaking at the service was Celtics manager Red Auerbach, who said he had planned to draft Bias with the Celtics for three years. Michael Jordan sent the Bias family their first set of flowers: peonies, Larry Bird sent the second set of flowers, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy sent sympathy cards as well as other heads of state, athletes called the Bias house. The popularity of Len Bias surprised his mother. The Celtics honored Bias with their own memorial service on June 30th that year. At that service, Len’s mother Lonise was given his never-used Boston Celtics jersey with his Celtics number 30 on it.

The reason why I’m focusing on Len’s death has a lot to do about the year he was born: 1963. 1963 was also the year a lot of legendary NBA greats were born: Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Spud Webb, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, and most notably Michael Jordan. The era in which they played in from the late-80’s to the 90’s would be an era that would change the NBA forever.

Without a doubt, Michael Jordan was king. He was not only famous for his playing style and his NBA record breaking but for his immense endorsement marketability. Everything Jordan touches, everything Jordan wore, everything Jordan ate saw sales reach impressive totals. He was Madison Avenue’s dream. Even his shoe endorsed by Nike, the Air Jordan, sold large enough to make the company the top athletic wear company. Hey, I don’t call the Air Jordan “the shoe that changed the world” for nothing. The shoe was originally meant to be an athletic shoe but Michael’s popularity eventually turned it into a staple of streetwear. I remember the popularity of Air Jordans too well. I wanted to be different and wore L.A. Gears with snazzy-colored triple laces hoping to make Air Jordans wearers envious. It didn’t work because it wasn’t how cool your shoes looked; it’s whether they were Air Jordans or not.

Michael Jordan may have been king during that time but it also worked magic for the whole NBA too. In the few years just before Jordanmania, the NBA was already doing well with the star power of Larry Bird, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, Julius ‘Dr. J.’ Erving and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. However it was Jordan who created the revolution with a superstardom that even surpassed the best baseball players and football players at the time. His popularity catapulted the NBA from simply being a third major sports league to even rivaling the popularity of baseball and football. Seven new NBA franchises have since started up since his popularity. Sportswear and athletic uniforms, especially basketball jerseys and anything with Chicago Bulls, were a men’s wear phenomenon. Other basketball teams also sold a lot of sportswear like the San Antonio Spurs, L.A. Lakers and the Charlotte Hornets. I remember I did the Phoenix Suns because I was tired of all this Chicago Bulls stuff and also because I liked Charles Barkley.

Also Jordan may have been the Babe Ruth of his time but his megastar status helped promote other basketball stars like David Robinson, Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Isaiah Thomas and Shaquille O’Neal to superstar status. Yeah, basketball players sure got the rock star treatment back then. We should also not forget the Dream Team. That was the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team whose twelve team members consisted of eleven NBA greats. That was when NBA professionals were allowed for the time to compete in the Olympic Games. Since Jordan’s retirement, the NBA still thrives well but still lacks the glory days of the late 80’s and 90’s. Even today’s top NBA star Lebron James isn’t able to fill Jordan’s shoes.

Okay, now that I’ve talked of all this, you may wonder what does that have to do with Len Bias? As I mentioned, Bias was born the same year as a lot of NBA greats including Jordan. Ever since I saw the 30 For 30 documentary Without Bias, directed by Kirk Fraser, it left me wondering what would have happened to Bias had he not taken that fatal dose? It’s not just how well Bias could’ve excelled in the NBA that had me thinking. Sometimes I think it could’ve been the Celtics who could have most rivaled the Lakers and the Bulls for major NBA championships during that time. The Celtics could have had the power duo of ‘Bird and Bias.’ When I think of all those sneakers that were advertised during that period of time, I wonder what type of Reebok posters Len would’ve had? Even in thinking of the Dream Team of 1992, I wonder would Len have been part of the Dream Team? Those are questions no one will ever know the answer to.

A tragedy like that is always a sad occasion leaving me and others asking ‘why’ and ‘what if?’ You wonder would any good come out of it? Good did come out of it. One thing we should remember is Bias’ overdose came while cocaine was the biggest problem in the War On Drugs at the time. The basic powdered cocaine was already an epidemic and crack was already starting to create its own problems. Tribble was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Bias’ University of Maryland teammates Terry Long and David Gregg were charged with possession of cocaine and were dropped from the team. Tribble would later be convicted of drug dealing and be sentenced to ten years in prison. The University of Maryland came under huge fire including cover-ups in Bias’ cocaine possession to Bias’ academic status. Bias’ father called for investigation of the University of Maryland and the NCAA responded. Athletics director Dick Dull resigned soon after.

In 1988 U.S. Congress passed a stricter anti-drug law known as the ‘Len Bias law.’ Even the NBA got involved with having its stars promote anti-drug messages. In fact one person said Len Bias never tested positive for drugs but had he done so, it wouldn’t have affected his NBA recruitment back then. The NBA was that lax about it back then. Len’s death changed all that. Another thing that came to light over Bias’ death was that he was credits shy of graduating college and even failed courses in his last year knowing he was about to be signed to the NBA. Back in Bias’ day an athlete could be signed on to a sports league without graduating via a letter-of-intent. The NCAA system of athletes had to be revamped and reformed with stricter minimums for college entry and regulations for graduation.Nowadays no athlete is signed to a letter-of-intent without a review by the office of admission.

The Bias family would once again experience tragedy in December 1990 when their youngest son James Bias III was shot to death in his car in a shopping mall parking lot. The Bias parents, James and Lonise, have become involved in causes involving their sons’ deaths. Lonise became an anti-drug spokes person visiting schools, telling the story of Len and giving the message “Peer pressure destroys, peer pressure kills if you don’t know who you are.” James has lobbied for stricter handgun control. Another footnote: Seven years later the Celtics would lose one of their own, Reggie Lewis, to a heart attack caused by cocaine use.

Some of you may think that it was the 30 For 30 documentary that inspired me to write this on this day. True, just like it inspired me to write the 9.79 articles of the big run and the aftermath. It’s one thing to be reminded of a moment in sports like this while watching a 30 For 30 documentary. It’s another to hear the moment and even learn of who Len Bias was from the people that knew him best. Len Bias didn’t come across as your typical cocaine abuser. Actually in watching Without Bias, you’d think that Len was a sweet kid. He loved his parents terribly. He was close to his family. He even had a friendship with his church pastor Rev. Gregory Edmond. Even hearing of Len’s excited reaction on the day he was out promoting sneakers made me think he must have been a sweet kid. That doesn’t sound like your typical cocaine abuser. Just as shocking was how it was top-of-the-line cocaine he tried. It’s like one said, how social cocaine users could get cocaine that pure and that potent is unheard of. Normally it’s bought by people higher up the social ladder. Hearing it all just makes me want to shake my head.

27 years have passed since that tragic day. The NBA has seen its fair share of talents own the spotlight for many years. For the Bias family, they’re left with memories of a son and the heartbreak of missing him. For the University of Maryland, they’re left with regret over letting such an incident go overlooked until it was too late. For the Boston Celtics at that time and even the NBA, they’re left with the wonder of what Bias would have been like. We’ll never know. Watching Without Bias really made me think. Seeing his mother receive the Celtics jersey at the memorial service was a gripping moment. Even hearing the quotes from people who remember him really make me think: “He had the purest jump shot I’ve ever seen… and it was a work of art.” “Both Jordan and Bias played with a rage. A controlled rage.” “Len Bias as a player as I remember him was a consummate  inside/outside force. A truly exciting player.”  Makes you wonder.

Happy 50th Birthday, Len ‘Frosty’ Bias. You’re gone but still remembered by many. It’s unfortunate you’re best known for your untimely death but many remember you as a great player. That’s as it should be.