No No: A Dockumentary


Dock Ellis makes his pitch at Wrigley Field, Chicago.

Dock Ellis makes his pitch at Wrigley Field, Chicago.

(2014) Documentary (Arts + Labor) Dock Ellis, Steve Blass, Willie Stargell, Ron Howard, Bruce Kison, Mudcat Grant, Dave Cash, Al Oliver. Directed by Jeff Radice

Florida Film Festival 2014

As someone who lived through the 70s, I can tell you that I never thought them particularly turbulent or interesting. Many point to the 60s as being a far more fascinating decade but the 70s had its share of difficult times. Looking back through the eyes of someone who was in his prime then and turned out to be a much more important influence than you could imagine, I can see that the 70s were far from boring.

Dock Ellis is probably not that well-known outside of baseball fans and knowledgeable baseball fans at that. He pitched his last game in 1979 and his glory years were from 1970-76, mostly with the Pittsburgh Pirates but also with the New York Yankees (he also pitched for the New York Mets, the Oakland Athletics and the Texas Rangers).

During his time in  the game, Ellis was an impressive figure. Baseball is full of characters who march to their own drummer but Ellis was one of a kind. He was kind of a Superfly with a great slider. Outside the stadium he was the paragon of style and fashion; inside he was a dogged competitor. Both on and off the field he spoke out against what he thought was wrong. He was a powerful individualist.

Unfortunately powerful individualists in the 70s were attracted to recreational drug use. Ellis famously pitched his no-hitter while under the influence of LSD. Now, while the film doesn’t really cover this, it should be said in the interest of full disclosure that there are some who dispute this, including the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Press, Bill Christine, who was at the game and knew the team well. Corroborating evidence has been hard to find but in fairness, neither has any information disproving the story. What is not in dispute is that drug abuse was rampant in the major leagues at the time.

The main offender and Ellis’  usual drug of choice was dexomyl, an amphetamine commonly known as greenies is the locker room. Use of the drug was widespread in Major League Baseball and while the MLB continues to have drug issues (mainly with steroids), recreational drug use is apparently not nearly as common in the majors as it was back then.

Ellis was also known for being a proponent for players’ rights, particularly those of African-American descent. He was in the line-up when the Pirates dressed an entirely non-white team, the first time in Major League Baseball history that had been achieved. He was known to argue with management when he felt he was in the right, sometimes stridently.

However, his drug abuse and sometimes distracting behavior undoubtedly shortened his major league career. He would eventually get straight and after retiring from the game became a counselor to major league players and helped many of them get rehabilitated. When he died in 2008 from complications from liver disease, he was far too young but had left an indelible mark.

The documentary about Ellis is clearly a labor of love. First-time feature filmmaker Radice is based in Austin and has been working on this since reading Ellis’ biography ten years ago. Like many independent documentaries, it has been filmed in bits and pieces as the filmmakers could afford to go out and get interviews in Pittsburgh (where they talked to many of Dock’s old teammates) and Los Angeles (where Ellis grew up and where many of his family and friends still reside).

Like many independent documentaries, there is also a tendency towards talking heads. The filmmakers interviewed more than 50 people for the film and while that adds a lot to the mix, it’s just too many. Still, I can understand Radice’s dilemma; all of the interviews are pretty interesting and give a good deal of insight into Ellis.

The drug use is certainly a big part of Ellis’ life but that’s not all he was and the movie does a good job of portraying who he is as a person beyond the more sensational stuff. Sometimes the portrait is humorous, sometimes frightening (one of Ellis’ four wives did leave because Ellis, no longer himself, was menacing her physically) and often touching. Baseball wasn’t big enough to contain a larger-than-life person like Ellis by itself. In essence, this is a documentary about a person, not a drug abuse documentary nor a baseball movie although again, both play major parts in who Dock Ellis was.

Unfortunately, Ellis passed away before the filmmakers could interview the man himself but one of the movie’s highlights is an archival interview when Ellis was reading a letter from the great Jackie Robinson commending him on his activism and urging him to continue. The tough pitcher, one of the most competitive in the game and one of the most unique individuals to ever play, breaks down into tears. Dock Ellis got it, and the filmmakers do as well.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating insights. Ellis is an engaging character.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many talking heads.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some foul language, drug content and sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to self-financing his debut effort, Radice employed a volunteer advisory board to help him get through rough patches. The board included former major league pitcher Scipio Spinks, photographer and Ellis family friend Glen E. Friedman, documentary director Keith Maitland and SXSW/Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black. No, not that one; that one is spelled Lewis.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Congo

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Edge of Tomorrow

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42


Ebony and Ivory...

Ebony and Ivory…

(2013) Sports Biography (Warner Brothers) Chadwick Boseman, Nicole Beharie, Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, T.R. Knight, Alan Tudyk,  John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens Jr., Gino Anthony Pesi, Brett Cullen, Cherise Boothe. Directed by Brian Helgeland 

I think that I’m not alone in admiring Jackie Robinson or considering him a personal hero of mine. Nearly every American is aware that he was the first African-American to play in major league baseball – in fact, many erroneously believe he was the first African-American to play in professional sports – Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall both played in the NFL in 1920 and Robinson made his debut in 1947. But Robinson’s achievement bears closer examination; at the time baseball was America’s pastime. The reaction to a black man in the game most closely identified with the American spirit was not unlike the same reaction one might get if they spit on the tomb of the unknown soldier.

Branch Rickey (Ford), president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a very good baseball club, having challenged for the pennant for years. Rickey, a devout Methodist, had made the decision to bring a black man into baseball, a decision that horrified his second in command Harold Parrott (Knight) who envisioned the white fans of Brooklyn deserting the team in droves.

However Rickey was not to be denied and so he went on an exhaustive search to find the right man for the job. He considered a number of stars from the Negro Leagues (some of whom, like Roy Campanella, would end up on the team eventually) but eventually settled on Jack Roosevelt Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs. Impressed with his character, Rickey summoned the player to Brooklyn.

Robinson, recently married to college sweetheart Rachel (Beharie), is a bit mystified. He has no idea what Rickey has in mind and it is inferred that the idea that he’d be the one to break the color barrier is the furthest thing from his mind. When Rickey tells him he’s looking for someone to turn the other cheek, Robinson is insulted; are they looking for someone without the guts to fight back? “No,” Rickey thunders, “I’m looking for someone with the guts not to fight back.”

Robinson has more than enough guts and he reports to spring training…in Florida. Naturally the natives don’t take too kindly to an uppity you-know-what playing a white man’s game – in Sanford, the sheriff threatens to shut down the game if Robinson plays. His manager, Clay Hopper (Cullen) is read the riot act by Rickey. Eventually, Robinson makes the minor league Montreal Royals, one step away from the big leagues. He spends the season there.

In 1947, Robinson attends training camp – this time in Panama – with the Dodgers and the team is fully aware that Robinson, who’d torn up the International League with Montreal the previous season, is going to be on the opening day roster and on April 15, 1947 Robinson makes history by taking the field at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

It’s an uphill struggle however. His own teammates circulate a petition, asking Rickey to reconsider (manager Leo Durocher (Meloni) essentially tells them that if they don’t like it, they can expect to be traded). Things aren’t helped much when Durocher is suspended for the season and Burt Shotton (Gail), of whom a New York Sportswriter consistently referred to as Kindly Old Burt Shotton (it’s in Roger Kahn’s excellent The Boys of Summer if you want further insight to this story), is hired in his place.

On the field, Robinson gets it from all sides – the fans, the players, even the managers, particularly Ben Chapman (Tudyk) of the Philadelphia Phillies whose graphic racial attacks are as reprehensible and as vicious as anything you’re ever likely to hear. Hotels refuse to put the Dodgers up because of Robinson’s presence and yet the man perseveres, refusing to give in, turning the other cheek until both cheeks are bruised.

The question to ask here is whether or not the movie tells Robinson’s story properly and I’m of two minds of that here. I think it does a really good job in establishing his relationships with Rickey and Rachel, as well with sportswriter Wendell Smith (Holland) who is hired more or less to be Robinson’s assistant – picking him up and driving him around, arranging for lodging with black politicians when the white hotels won’t admit him, essentially serving as friend and confidante. He also gives Robinson perspective from time to time which proves valuable.

A Jackie Robinson biography had been in the works years ago, with Spike Lee and Denzel Washington attached. Sadly, it never came to pass and sadder still, part of the reason why was studio reluctance to do a movie about Robinson. However, it is a hopeful sign that Warner Brothers agreed not only to do the film, but allow an unknown to be cast in the lead.

Boseman has a relaxed, easy presence that is fiery in places, tender in others. He has the potential to be a star, not only because he captures some of the personality of Robinson but clearly fleshes out the legend some. Unfortunately, the writers really didn’t give him a lot to work with in terms of defining who Robinson was beyond the diamond. That might not be entirely their fault – Robinson was an intensely private man who tended to keep most of his thoughts and feelings to himself. However, Rachel is still alive as are two of his three children and perhaps some contact with them might have fleshed out Robinson’s profile a bit further, although it’s possible they would have preferred to keep what the ballplayer wanted kept private during his lifetime the same way afterwards.

Beharie is also lustrous here and shows signs of being an excellent leading lady. I hope this role gets her some further roles in big films – she has the beauty and the charisma to carry them. I really liked her as Rachel, although again we fail to see the extent of the support she gave Jackie which was considerable by all accounts.

Ford gives one of the most memorable performances of his career, playing Rickey note-perfect as a Bible-thumping curmudgeon on the outside with the kind of heart of gold on the inside that the real Rickey rarely revealed to the public. There’s a really nice scene in a locker room after Jackie is spiked and is being stitched up when he asks Rickey why he did what he did and finally Rickey comes clean with him. It’s the kind of scene that shows up on Oscar telecasts.

I liked this movie a lot, but could have liked it more with a little less baseball, a little more character and maybe a little more time overall with Jackie off the field. Even so, this is an impressive film which I can pretty much recommend without hesitation. As cultural icons go, Robinson has left a towering legacy. That legacy is deserving of a movie that reflects that and while I’m not sure 42 gives it what it deserves, it at least makes a fine attempt in the meantime.

REASONS TO GO: Gives you a sense of what he endured. Ford does some of his best work ever.

REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t give you a sense of who Jackie Robinson was other than what you can deduce from the history books.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some pretty bad language including liberal use of the “N” word (which you have to have if you’re doing a bio on Robinson since he heard it more than his share) and some thematic elements that might be disturbing to young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in his career Harrison Ford has portrayed a real person.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100; positive reviews overall for this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A League of Their Own

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The ABCs of Death