This docu about a Navaho girl’s high school basketball team and its Afro-American coach proved a labor of love for the filmmakers, who were drawn back year after year for more than a decade to complete the pic. Featuring play-by-play game coverage, a recap of the Afro-American experience of the early ’70s and a look at the Navaho culture, “Rocks With Wings” shows how the building of a championship basketball team affected an entire community. Winner of HBO Best Documentary award at Urbanworld and skedded for PBS airing on Dec. 10, film’s unusual cross-cultural aspects may lure a wide docu audience, particularly if trimmed judiciously.
Events transpire in a New Mexico desert town on the Navajo reservation that lies in the shadow of an impressive rock formation the Navajos call “rocks with wings” and Anglo maps designate as “Shiprock.” Docu focuses on two key seasons, 1986-87 and 1987-88, that chart the Lady Chieftains’ eventual victory over their nearby rival, the Kirtland Broncos, erstwhile winners of eight consecutive championships.
To a large extent, the Chieftains’ story is the story of its coach, Jerry Richardson. Docu chronicles his arrival in New Mexico, his upbringing in Texarkana, Texas, the prejudice that sidelined his basketball career and his need to win. Richardson’s fierce competitive spirit and discipline initially clash with the attitudes and values of his Navajo players. But director Rick Derby shows how the success of the team manages to unite a town mired in unemployment and poverty. The unwieldy production timeline shapes the story oddly: Certain long-ago discussions are minutely reconstructed in exhaustive detail while, in the final reel, whole years zip by, summed up in a single phrase. While some of pic’s turning points are described by talking heads in excruciating detail, tech credits are generally good. Most evocative is the chanting of Navajo singers which accompanies the well-crafted montages of fans and townspeople.
Photographs, tapestries and sand paintings figure prominently to trace the cultural history of the Navajo, in particular the “spirit line,” a deliberate irregularity woven into the design so that there is a pathway out that allows the creative spirit to keep from getting trapped inside.
Derby seems to have taken the lesson to heart — he plans to follow this two hour film with several others, culled from his miles of 16mm footage.