Bill Russell: Legend 2023 movie review
Netflix has become a destination for high-quality sports documentaries, and one of the most prestigious arrives this week: a two-part film from Sam Pollard, the brilliant filmmaker behind “MLK/FBI” and co-director of “Mr. Soul!”
The historian focuses on one of the most influential sports figures of the twentieth century, a man who forever altered the game of basketball and established a dominant winning culture in Boston that has earned the Celtics legendary status.
Bill Russell is often regarded as a basketball player’s Mount Rushmore, but “Bill Russell: Legend” also recognizes his significance as a civil rights icon. The two-part film explores the racism he encountered while winning championships, as well as the importance of equality to the man who stood alongside Muhammad Ali in protest of the war and supported Colin Kaepernick when he took a knee.
“Bill Russell: Legend” is nearly 200 minutes long, which may seem excessive to non-fans, but Pollard clearly knew that one feature-length documentary wouldn’t be enough for a man as big as Bill Russell, and I don’t just mean his height.
Pollard knows how to put together a project like “Bill Russell: Legend,” seamlessly transitioning from Russell’s performance on the court to stories about his life off the court, with passages from his memoirs read by Jeffrey Wright. (Corey Stoll narrates the entire project.)
Russell, who died just a year ago, was an outspoken activist throughout his life, but it’s amazing how revolutionary he was for a sport that was almost entirely white when he transformed it. I was fascinated by stories about a young Russell trying to memorise Michelangelo paintings in library books and then recreating them at home, as his gameplay revealed an obsession with body angles. He knew where someone was going with the ball before they did because of what his opponent’s body told him. Pollard’s film contains a lot of archival game footage, and it’s incredible to see Russell appear to be playing a different game than everyone else.
Despite this, he didn’t get the credit he deserved because he was defying all expectations due to the era in which he entered the game. Despite leading the San Francisco Dons to two consecutive NCAA titles, his white teammates were always given the credit.
Even during the Celtics’ incredible run of 11 NBA championships in Russell’s 13-year career—a streak that will never be repeated—the Boston sports press never seemed to give Russell enough credit. He was the first African-American NBA superstar, and he never forgot what that meant to him.
“Bill Russell: Legend” features interviews with Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas, Jalen Rose, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, and others who followed in his footsteps. Shaquille O’Neal jokes that Russell should receive a portion of every big man’s salary because of how much they owe him. “Bill Russell: Legend” is a little thin on NBA analysis at times, but the material about Russell’s life off the court is riveting. Pollard not only interviewed Russell before his death, but also his daughter and colleagues from his Boston days, who refer to “Russell the man” rather than “Russell the legend.”
Bill Russell felt a responsibility to carry his people as much as he carried his teammates. “He was aware of the racial weight on his shoulders,” says someone in the documentary, and considering how much he had to overcome adds to his legacy. When he wasn’t dunking on his opponent, he marched with MLK. What I took away from “Bill Russell: Legend” was how one descriptive word doesn’t capture this very complicated sports figure.
He was an athlete, yes, but he was also a thinker, a trailblazer, and occasionally a difficult teammate. The best documentaries do not reduce their subjects to the public perception of them, but rather unpack what even fans were unaware of in order to make them more three-dimensional than a highlight reel. Before this project, I admired what Bill Russell meant to the NBA. I now appreciate what he contributed to history.
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