Review: ‘Say Hey, Willie Mays!,’ starring Willie Mays

January 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Willie Mays in “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!”

Directed by Nelson George

Culture Representation: In the documentary film “Say Hey, Willie Mays!,” a group of African American and white people (with some Latinos), who are all connected to the American baseball industry in some way, discuss the impact of former Major League Baseball player Willie Mays, an inductee in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Culture Clash: Mays, who rose from humble background, broke records and racial barriers in baseball, but he still experienced a lot of racism and other problems. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the target audience of fans of Mays and American baseball, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about sports heroes or people who overcame obstacles to achieve greatness.

Willie Mays and Nelson George in “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is a laudatory, traditionally made documentary that doesn’t reveal anything new. However, this well-edited movie has a notable lineup of interviewees, including the great Willie Mays himself, who tell very engaging stories. “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” had its world premiere at the 2022 Urbanworld Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Nelson George, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” covers many of the same topics that were already covered in the 1988 book “Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays,” which Mays co-authored with Lou Sahadi. However, the documentary has updates up until the 2020s and has the benefit of being able to tell the story in cinematic form. It’s one thing to read about some of Mays’ iconic baseball games. It’s another thing to see the actual footage.

From the beginning, viewers know that the documentary is going to be a praise fest for Mays. The movie opens with a montage of gushing commentary from star players and experts of American baseball who are interviewed. Baseball star Barry Bonds says, “Willie is always going to be the godfather.” (And, as Bonds describes in detail in teh documentary, Mays literally is his godfather.) Baseball star Reggie Jackson (Mays’ former Oakland A’s rival) comments on Mays: “He is the most spectacular basebally player that ever played.”

Cultural historian Dr. Todd Boyd adds, “He dominated every entirety of the game.” As many baseball fans already know, most star baseball players excel or are known for one or two positions or talents in the game. Mays was extraordinary for excelling at everything in various game positions.

Longtime sports broadcaster Bob Costas credits former New York Giants manager Leo Durocher (who recruited Mays to the New York Giants in 1950, the year thay Mays graduated from high school) with coming up with a term that’s frequently used to describe Mays: “I think he [Durocher] might have been the guy who coined [the phrase] ‘five-tool power.'” The “five-tool player” in baseball refers to a player mastering five key skills in baseball playing: (1) hitting per average; (2) power hitting; (3) running; (4) fielding; and (5) throwing.

Born in 1931 in Westfield, Alabama, May came from humble beginnings and found his baseball calling early in life. He began playing for Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League while still in high school.” In the documentary, May reiterates how much Jackie Robinson (the first African American to play in Major League Baseball) had an influence on May: “I was impressed. He could do everything.”

Robinson’s pivotal breaking down of color barriers in Major League Baseball led to the league recruiting of players from the Negro American League, a league that eventually became obsolete as baseball in the United States became racially integrated. Mays was one of those recruited players in the early years of racially integrated Major league Baseball. He endured a lot of racist abuse and discrimination from some people, but most people who were New York Giants fans were thrilled at how Robinson quickly stood out as a player who helped the team win games.

During his early years with the New York Giants, Mays lived in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where he said he spent a lot of time at the Red Rooster restaurant/bar. His signature phrase “say hey” came about when he moved to New York, and he would tell people to stop by and “say hey.” Mays shares fond memories of holding court at the Red Rooster as a young man, but viewers will get the sense that he didn’t let all the attention of being a local hero go to his head.

In fact, several times throughout the documentary, it’s mentioned and shown how Mays spent much of his life using his fame and fortune to help others, especially underprivileged young people, including launching the Say Hey Foundation in 2000. “Say Hey, Willie Mays” also addresses the criticism that Mays got (including from his idol Robinson) for not publicly taking more of a political stand during the U.S. civil rights movement and the Black Power movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Mays says that it was never his style to publicly talk about politics, and his way of helping fellow African Americans was through his charitable work that he often did not publicize. Boyd comments, “Willie did things for people behind the scenes.”

After winning the 1954 World Series with the New York Giants (who were the underdogs against the Cleveland Indians), Mays moved to San Francisco when the Giants relocated to San Francisco in 1958. The documentary mentions that at the time, retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio (a San Francisco native) was the biggest baseball star in San Francisco. Mays, who was a big deal in New York, was somewhat overshadowed at first by the celebrity legend of DiMaggio in San Francisco, and had to work hard to win over skeptical fans in the San Francisco area.

But even with all the accolades, fame and money that Mays had because of his baseball career, Mays still experienced harsh racial discrimination. He and his first wife Marghuerite, whom he married in 1952, were not allowed to buy a house in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood populated by white people, not because the couple didn’t have the money but because of their race. The racism involved in Mays not being able to buy this house got a lot of media attention.

After a lot of public uproar, he and Marghuerite eventually bought the house, but many of the neighbors still objected to the couple living there. Mays says in the documentary that the stress of this ordeal contributed to the eventual breakdown of the couple’s marriage. He and Marghuerite separated in 1962 and officially divorced in 1963. Mays wed his second wife Mae (who was a social worker) in 1971, and they were married until her death in 2013, at the age of 74.

While a member of the San Francisco Giants, Mays became the team’s unofficial leader, say several people in the documentary. He also defended the Spanish-speaking Latino players against racism they experienced from people who didn’t want Spanish to be spoken in the team clubhouse. Mays’ former Giants teammates Orlando Cepeda, Ozzie Virgil Sr., Juan Marichal and Tito Fuentes all praise Mays for his leadership skills and for how well he treated people. Cepeda, who was a bat boy for May when Mays visited Puerto Rico, says in the documentary: “The reason why I came to play baseball was because of Willie.”

Even though Mays was eventually traded to the New York Mets in 1972 and made it to the World Series with the Mets in 1973 (the Mets lost, and he retired that year), he will be mostly remembered for his association with the Giants. Former San Francisco Giants star Bonds, who is perhaps the most famous protégé of Mays, speaks at length and sometimes gets emotional when talking about how Mays was more than a mentor to Bonds. Mays was also a second father figure to Bonds, especially after Barry’s father Bobby Bonds (who was a former San Francisco Giants teammate of Mays) passed away in 2003. Barry says, “My dad loved Willie more than anything. Willie took all the black athletes and the time and put them on his shoulders.”

It’s fairly common knowledge among baseball fans that Mays (who received a lifetime contract to work for the San Francisco Giants in 1992) was instrumental in getting the San Francisco Giants to recruit Barry. Barry also says that Mays encouraged Barry to break Mays’ record of having the most home runs in a single season for a National League player. Barry says that Mays told him about breaking Mays’ record: ‘You better pass me, and you better keep going.'” Barry eventually did that and more: In 2001, he broke the Major League Baseball record for having the most home runs (73) in a single season.

However, “Say Hey, Willie Mays” completely ignores that Barry’s career and reputation were tarnished by his “doping” scandal, when it was revealed that he used steroids during his baseball career. If Barry and/or Mays were asked about this scandal for the documentary, it’s not in the movie. It’s also possible that Barry wouldn’t agree to be interviewed if he had been asked about the scandal in this documentary, but that isn’t mentioned in the film either. Viewers can only speculate why such a big “elephant in the room” was not addressed at all in this documentary.

The closes that the documentary that alludes to Barry’s baseball career ending in some kind of disgrace is the documentary’s use of an archival footage clip during a 2018 ceremony of Barry’s number 25 being retired by the Giants. During the ceremony, Willie gives a speech and makes an emotional plea his for Barry to get voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Although Barry is eligible, he hasn’t received enough votes to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, presumably because of the doping scandal.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include historian/activist Dr. Harry Edwards; Faye Davis, daughter of “godfather of black baseball” Piper Davis; Rickwood Field president Gerald Watkins former baseball player Rev. William “Bill” Greason, Willie’s friend/mentor; sports broadcaster Vin Scully; former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown; Dusty Baker, a Major League Baseball player-turned manager; San Francisco Giants president/CEO Larry Baer; and former San Francisco Giants clubhouse senior advisor Miguel “Mike” Murphy, who retired in 2023.

“Say Hey, Willie Mays!” does a credible job of putting into context the racism obstacles that Willie and some of his other non-white teammates experienced and how he used those experiences to help others. Willie Mays’ son Michael Mays, who is interviewed in he documentary, says that any racism that Willie experienced was something he left behind when he played on the field, but off the field it was something he tried to turn from a negative to a positive. Michael adds, “He comes from a family where everybody helps everybody.” Boyd adds of Willie: “He had the power to open the doors for other people.”

However, the documentary doesn’t dig any deeper to find out how Willie’s close faher/son-type relationship with Barry affected Michael or other members of the Mays family. “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is certainly inspirational, but it doesn’t provide much new insight into Willie except to praise all of his glories without a full exploration of any of his failings and what he might have learned from any mistakes he made in his life. Overall, “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” is not a completely well-rounded or grounbreaking documentary, but it’s a treat to watch for baseball fans or anyone who likes to see biographies of people who have lived their lives with dignity and respect.

HBO premiered “Say Hey, Willie Mays!” on November 8, 2022.

Review: ‘Sidney,’ starring Sidney Poitier

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)


Directed by Reginald Hudlin

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Sidney” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and one person of Middle Eastern heritage), including actor/filmmaker/humanitarian Sidney Poitier, from the entertainment industry and from Poitier’s family, who all discuss Poitier’s life and legacy.

Culture Clash: Poitier, who broke many racial barriers in his long and esteemed career, experienced poverty in his childhood, racism from white people, and accusations of being a “sellout” from some members of the African American community.

Culture Audience: “Sidney” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Poitier and real stories of people who became icons after experiencing many hardships.

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The admirable documentary “Sidney” follows a very traditional format, but in telling the story of the extraordinary Sidney Poitier, it’s no ordinary biography. Poitier’s participation gives this documentary a heartfelt resonance that’s unparalleled. It’s the last major sit-down interview that he did before he died. He passed away at the age of 94, on January 6, 2022.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Sidney” is a documentary that includes the participation and perspectives of several members of Poitier’s family, including all six of his daughters and the two women who were his wives. Some journalists and historians weigh in with their opinions, but the documentary is mostly a star-studded movie of entertainers who were influenced or affected by Poitier in some way. “Sidney” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the celebrity talking heads in the documentary is Oprah Winfrey, who is one of the producers of “Sidney.” She talks openly about how important Poitier was to her as a mentor during her own rise to fame as a TV talk show host and later as the owner of a media empire. Toward the end of the film, Winfrey begins crying when she says how much she misses Poitier. It’s a moment where viewers will have a hard time not getting tearful too.

Most people watching “Sidney” will already know something about Poitier before seeing this movie. His 2000 memoir “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” covers a lot of the same topics that’s covered in “Sidney.” But to see him talk about his life story and experiences in what no one knew at the time would be his last major interview brings an special poignancy to this documentary.

Born in Miami, on February 20, 1927, Poitier grew up in poverty in the Bahamas, his parents’ native country. He was the youngest of seven children born to famers Reginald and Evelyn Poitier. “I wasn’t expected to live,” Poitier says of his birth. “I was born two months premature.”

Poitier says that he was so sickly at birth, his father brought a shoe box into the birth room because the family thought that baby Sidney would have to be buried in the box. Sidney’s frantic mother took newborn Sidney to different places in the neighborhood to find anyone who could help save his life. Evelyn found a female soothsayer who said she couldn’t give any medical help, but she predicted that Sidney would be find and he would grow up to be an influential person who would find fame and fortune.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy and it was far from glamorous. In 1942, at the age of 15, his father Reginald had Sidney move to Miami and live with an aunt and uncle, because Sidney had a friend who was a juvenile delinquent, and Reginald feared that Sidney would fall in with a bad crowd. Little did Sidney know that he would be facing a different type of damage to his innocence.

In Miami, Sidney went through major culture shock and racism that drastically changed his perspective of the world. “Within a few months, I began to switch my whole view of life,” Sidney says of moving from the Bahamas to Miami. He got a part-time job as a delivery boy, and he tells a story of not understanding why a white woman who got one of his deliveries demanded that he only go to the back of the house to make the delivery. Later, when he heard that members of the Ku Klux Klan were looking for him because of this incident, he got so unnerved that he decided to leave town.

But even that attempted trip was fraught with danger, because he was harassed and stalked by white police officers, who didn’t want to see a black male having the freedom to travel wherever he wanted. Needless to say, when Sidney heard that black people had better work opportunities in New York City, he soon relocated to New York City, where he discovered his love of acting.

Life in New York City was a very difficult challenge too. For a while, Sidney was homeless and had to sleep in a public bathrooms. He got a job as a dishwasher while also taking acting classes, which he says he was like being in useful therapy, where he could pour all of his emotions into fictional characters. He read books and listened to radio stars (especially Norman Brokenshire) to learn how to speak with an American accent.

His motivation to become a great actor came from being rejected by audiences at the American Negro Theater because, as a black man, he was expected to sing, dance and be funny. Sidney wanted to be a serious dramatic actor. One of the American Negro Theater officials told Sidney that he should just give up acting altogether. We all know what happened after that Sidney got that horrible advice. It’s an excellent example of how someone can turn failure and discouragement into a triumph.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Sidney’s guiding principles were to do work that would make his parents proud. That’s why, throughout his career, he rejected doing roles that were demeaning to black people. He made his film debut as a doctor in the 1950 drama “No Way Out.” And the rest is history.

The year 1950 was also the year that Sidney married his first wife, Juanita Hardy Poitier. The couple had four daughters together: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina. During the marriage, Sidney had a nine-year on-again/off-again affair with actress Diahann Carroll (who died of cancer in 2019), his co-star in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.” Poitier and Carroll later co-starred in 1961’s “Paris Blues.” Sidney and Juanita’s marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1965. Sidney describes this period of time of his life as one of career highs but personal lows. He also expresses remorse about how his marital infidelity and divorce hurt his family.

The documentary gives chronological highlights of his career in movies and in theater. For his role in 1958’s prisoner escapee drama “The Defiant Ones” (co-starring Tony Curtis) Poitier became the first black person to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the movie’s ending was somewhat controversial among black people, because some critics thought it was pandering to a what’s now known as a “magical Negro” stereotype.

For his role in 1963’s “Lilies in the Field,” Sidney became the first black person to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. It was a role that was originally turned down by Poitier’s longtime friend Harry Belafonte, who was busy with a music career. Belafonte also thought that the “Lilies in a Field” role (a black man who’s a nomadic worker befriends a group of white German nuns) was too corny and subservient. Belafonte does not do an on-camera interview for this documentary, but he can be heard in a few voiceover comments.

In 1967, Sidney was a bona fide superstar as the lead actor in critically acclaimed hit movies “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” All were groundbreaking in different ways in depicting race relations in cinema. And the fact that they were box-office successes are indications that times were changing, and the world was ready to see these types of movies.

For his “In the Heat of the Night” role, Sidney played a confident police detective named Virgil Tibbs, who demanded respect from everyone around him. There’s a famous scene in the movie where Virgil is slapped in the face by a racist white man for no good reason. In response, Virgil slaps the man in the face. At the time, it was rare for a movie to show a black man defending himself from this type of racist hate.

In “To Sir, With Love,” Sidney played a schoolteacher in East London who has to be the instructor for unruly white teenagers. It was another on-screen rarity at the time to see a black man in charge of white children. And in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Sidney had the role of a doctor who gets engaged to a white woman after a whirlwind romance, and she brings him home to introduce him to her shocked parents for the first time.

The documentary repeatedly mentions that for every accolade and trailblazing accomplishment that Sidney received, there were critics who thought that he wasn’t being “black enough.” Winfrey, who’s gotten the same type of criticism, remembers meeting Sidney after she became famous and was very in awe of meeting him. She says she asked him how he dealt with the “not black enough” criticism, and he gave her advice that she never forgot: He told her that as long as she was doing what felt right in her heart, that’s all that mattered.

Sidney and Belafonte, who were as close as brothers, were at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s involvement in the U.S. civil rights movement. However, the two friends had occasional estrangements over various issues. One of these issues was that Sidney tended to be more politically conservative than Belafonte when it came to the support of Black Power groups that advocated for preparing for a race war and all the violence associated with war, especially after the devastating 1968 deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In his senior years, Sidney became an ambassador representing the Bahamas.

The documentary mentions that by the early 1970s, the Black Power movement and blaxploitation movies made Sidney seem like a somewhat a has-been and outdated movie star to some people. He began to shift his attention more to directing and producing movies. His feature-film directorial debut was the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. It’s mentioned in the documentary that as a filmmaker, Sidney practiced what he preached in the civil rights movement and gave plenty of jobs to people of color in front of the camera and behind the camera.

The 1970s decade was also period of change in his personal life: Sidney and Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus fell in love while co-starring in the 1969 movie “The Lost Man.” In the “Sidney” documentary, Shimkus Poitier says she never heard of Sidney until she got the role in the movie, whose love story plot mirrored their own romance. The couple had daughters Anika and Sydney Tamiia, and then wed in 1976, and remained married until Sidney’s death.

In the documentary, Sidney says that his second marriage also gave him a second chance to be a better husband and father. His daughters from his first marriage became part of his blended family. Sydney Tamiia (who is now known as Sidney Poitier Heartstrong) mentions that her parents made sure that she and her sister Anika grew up with other interracial families, with Quincy Jones and his interracial family being close friends with the Poitier family.

Jones is one of numerous stars who have joyous and insightful things to say about Poitier. Other entertainment celebrities who are interviewed include Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand, Louis Gossett Jr., Katharine Houghton and Lulu. Also interviewed are civil rights activist/former politican Andrew Young, writer/historian Greg Tate, civil rights activist Rev. Willie Blue, journalist/historian Nelson George and University of Memphis history professor Aram Goudsouzian, who wrote the 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.”

All of these interviewees have wonderful things to say and are often very witty when saying these things. That is not too surprising. However, what will stay with viewers the most is that they wouldn’t be saying those things if Sidney had not had such an exemplary life. His impact is immeasurable and goes far beyond the entertainment industry. He’s an unforgettable role model of hope, dignity and progress in striving for a better world.

Apple Studios released “Sidney” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on September 23, 2022.

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