Publicity-maven-turned-documentary filmmaker Dan Klores’ ode to basketball players and coaches from historically black colleges and universities is obviously a labor of love, but at four commercial-free hours, it’s also a somewhat disjointed, overtime affair that would clearly benefit from a tighter focus and a stern editor.
Publicity-maven-turned-documentary filmmaker Dan Klores’ ode to basketball players and coaches from historically black colleges and universities is obviously a labor of love, but at four commercial-free hours, it’s also a somewhat disjointed, overtime affair that would clearly benefit from a tighter focus and a stern editor. There are powerful moments scattered throughout this exhaustive endeavor, chronicling hoops history through segregation, the civil rights movement and nearly until the present day; still, looking over the stats, “Black Magic” too seldom lives up to its name.
As co-writer-producer-director, Klores opens with one of several underreported tidbits — a 1944 “secret game” between white players from Duke U. and an all-black team under John McLendon, a trailblazing African-American coach. Implementing McLendon’s fast-breaking style, his North Carolina College for Negroes squad ran the shellshocked Blue Devils off the court.
It was, in a sense, a harbinger of things to come — albeit later, after predominantly white colleges shed their resistance to recruiting African-Americans, the National Basketball Assn. began grudgingly integrating in the 1950s and those stars were gradually allowed to shine.
Klores’ collaborators include Earl Monroe, the former New York Knick and product of Winston-Salem State, whose playground-honed skills earned him the nickname “Black Jesus” before “Earl the Pearl.” The presentation, though, is a bit like a player trying too hard. Through grainy footage and extensive interviews, he seemingly wants to tell every story of the period, resulting in a scattershot approach — devoting as much time to Willis Reed’s dramatic return from injury in the Knicks’ title win against the Lakers as a deadly campus shooting by police in South Carolina.
The inherent problem is one of priorities, given that some of those profiled merit the attention and others aren’t nearly as interesting. The poignant plight of Chicago Bulls star Bob Love, for example — whose terrible stutter set back his career and nagged him after his playing days ended — could almost be its own special, whereas Pee Wee Kirkland, who wound up showcasing his formidable basketball skills in a prison league only, becomes more of a detour.
There are also perplexing oversights, such as no mention of the Texas Western team whose African-American starting lineup upset all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA championship (a story recently dramatized in the movie “Glory Road”). That arbitrary quality becomes more trying in the second half, especially once the narrative moves past the civil rights movement’s peak, into the ‘70s and beyond.
For basketball aficionados with gray in their hair, “Black Magic” does provide a rare opportunity to revel in the exploits of Monroe, Dick Barnett and other memorable figures from their youth, while documenting how institutionalized racism prevented them from fully exploiting (and certainly by today’s standards, profiting from) their talents. With the NCAA’s annual “March Madness” beginning, it’s a reminder how much has changed in the intervening decades — just one that could have been delivered with more precision and in less time.