Review: ‘A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre,’ starring Wu-Tang Clan

November 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

RZA (center) and Jon “DJ Skane” Lugo (far right) in “A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” (Photo courtesy of Wu Tang Productions Inc. and Gee-Bee Productions)

“A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre”

Directed by Gerald Barclay and RZA

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2021, the documentary film “A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” features a racially diverse group of people (mostly African American and white) who are connected in some way to hip-hip group Wu-Tang Clan’s concert with the Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, on August 13, 2021.

Culture Clash: Wu-Tang Clan and the Colorado Symphony defy the expectations of naysayers who think that hip-hop and classical music cannot be a good match.

Culture Audience: “A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Wu-Tang Clan and people who are interested in documentaries about unusual musical pairings.

A scene from “A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” (Photo courtesy of Wu Tang Productions Inc. and Gee-Bee Productions)

On August 13, 2021, hip-hop supergroup Wu-Tang Clan performed with the 60-piece Colororado Symphony at the iconic Red Rock Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado. “A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” chronicled this event on stage, backstage, and a few places elsewhere. It’s an entertaining but predictably formatted concert documentary with some film editing that’s a little rough around the edges. If anything, this movie is proof of how hip-hop and classical music can work well together. “A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” had its world premiere at the 2023 Urbanworld Film Festival.

Directed by RZA (a founding member of Wu-Tang Clan) and Gerald Barclay, “A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” shows how RZA was the driving force to pair Wu-Tang Clan with a symphony orchestra. RZA, who is also film composer, mentions at one point in the documentary that the inspiration for him to perform on stage with music that wasn’t all hip-hop started in 2016, when he performed the soundtrack to “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (a 1978 martial arts film), live at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. That experience led to more opportunities for RZA to show more musical versatility in a live concert setting, he says in the documentary. RZA’s love of martial arts cinema has always been a big influence on Wu-Tang Clan.

“A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” has plenty of on-stage footage, but the movie includes a great deal off-stage footage, such as exclusive interview clips with RZA and the other members of Wu-Tang Clan: Method Man, Cappadonna, Ghostface Killah, U-God, GZA, Raekwon, Masta Killa and Inspectah Deck. Young Dirty Bastard, son of former Wu-Tang Clan member Ol’ Dirty Bastard (who died of a drug overdose in 2004, at the age of 35), makes a guest appearance during the concert and almost steals the show.

Ever since Wu-Tang Clan burst out of New York City’s Staten Island to become one of the most influential forces in hip-hop—starting with Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut album, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”—there has always been intrigue and controversy surrounding the group. All of the members have strong individual personalities (and have solo careers), which has led to periods of infighting and musical hiatuses for Wu-Tang Clan. RZA has branched out to becoming a film director and a comic book entrepreneur.

It’s been several years since the group’s had a new studio album (the most recent album is 2015’s “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”), but Wu-Tang Clan still performs semi-regularly. This particular concert documentary shows them in good spirits and expressing overall camraderie. Raekwan comments, “I’m loving the togetherness.”

Masta Killa says of performing with the Colorado Symphony: “Having the orchestra there raises the bar. The goal was to raise it to the highest level possible. Are we there yet? I don’t know. We’ll know if this is a night to remember or a night where RZA just needs to shut the fuck up and stick to hip-hop.”

Method Man, the Wu-Tang Clan member with the most confident swagger on stage and offtsage, is shown in doing some weight lifting in a gym in the beginning of the documentary. He points to the spiderweb tattoos on his biceps, to proudly show how physically fit he is. He gives a lot of credit to RZA for being a visionary for Wu-Tang Clan and says, “We’re blessed that we’re still getting booked … A lot of our peers are dropping like flies.”

In the documentary, RZA reflects on a time when hip-hop wasn’t considered “real music” and has now evolved to be accepted into the mainstream. Case in point: Colorado Symphony resident conductor Christopher Dragon, who conducted the orchestra for this concert, says in the documentary that he grew up listening to Wu-Tang Clan and comes from a generational time period when hip-hop was fully accepted as real music. Dragon shares vivid memories of being 10 or 11 years old and listening to Wu-Tang Clan music that his older sister would play when she would drive them in a car without their parents around. Needless to say, Dragon is an enthusiastic musical partner for this concert.

Other people interviewed or featured in the documentary include Colorado Symphony artistic general manager Izabel Zambrzycki; Colorado Symphony viola player Mary Cowell; Colorado Symphony manager of ortistic Operations Dustin Knock; music producer Oliver “Power” Grant; WuMusic Group general manager Tareef Michael; DJ Mathematics; Jon “DJ Skane” Lugo; Young Dirty Bastard brand/operations manager Divine Everlasting. A diverse assortment of Wu-Tang Clan fans, who are not identifed by their names, are also interviewed at the concert. They say typical fan things, such as how the music affected their lives in positive ways and mention their favorite Wu-Tang Clan songs.

RZA comes across as the deep thinker of the group—someone who would rather show people what he can do, rather than brag about what he can do before it gets done. Although he occasionally says some cliché statements (“Music is a universal language”; “Wu-Tang is for the people”), RZA is the person in the group who makes the most effort to be inspirational in unifying not just the members of the group but also the people in the audience. Toward the end of the concert, RZA leads the audience to put their pands up to form the letter “w,” which not only stands for Wu-Tang Clan but also, as RZA says: “These w’s represent wings. You can fly above anything.”

Red Rocks Amphiteatre is unique and famous for being a venue that exists among natural rock formations that surround the venue. The beauty of the Red Rocks Amphitheatre location is well-showcased in the documentary, which has some stunning drone camera shots, as well as memorable wide-angle shots that allow viewers to soak up the atmosphere of this electrifying concert without actually being there.

The concert features many of Wu-Tang Clan’s best-known songs, including “Protect Ya Neck,” “Can It Be All So Simple,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit,” “It’s Yourz,” and “Triumph.” A few solo songs are performed, such as Young Dirty Bastard doing his version of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and Method Man doing his own solo hit “Bring Da Pain.” In other words, it’s a crowd-pleasing set list.

Will people who don’t like hip-hop enjoy this documentary? It depends on how open-minded viewers are to seeing a documentary that might have music that isn’t necessarily a genre that they listen to on a regular basis. “A Wu-Tang Experience: Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre” does a fairly good job of balancing the on-stage footage with the off-stage footage, but a few of the editing transitions are a bit choppy. Despite these minor flaws, it’s great to see a hip-hop documentary that isn’t a negative stereotype of being about feuding or violence. Wu-Tang Clan has defied a lot of expectations in the group’s long career. This documentary stands as a worthy testament of how taking musical risks can lead to meaningful creative rewards.

Review: ‘American Fiction,’ starring Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae and Sterling K. Brown

November 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Erika Alexander and Jeffrey Wright in “American Fiction” (Photo by Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)

“American Fiction”

Directed by Cord Jefferson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and in Massachusetts, the comedy/drama film “American Fiction” (based on the novel “Erasure”) features an African American and white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An author/professor, who happens to be African American, creates a fake persona as a fugitive criminal to write a book that has racially demeaning stereotypes of African Americans, and when the book becomes a hit, he has to decide how far he will go in living this lie.

Culture Audience: “American Fiction” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and movies that take sharp aim at how people use racial stereotypes to damage others and to make profits.

Sterling K. Brown in “American Fiction” (Photo by Claire Folger/Orion Pictures)

“American Fiction” takes a smart and satirical look at how racial stereotypes are enabled and perpetuated. Jeffrey Wright gives a standout performance as an author who has to choose between keeping his integrity by being his authentic self, or being a demeaning racial stereotype for money. This sharp and incisive movie is also an emotionally touching portrayal of a family trying not to fall apart when dealing with serious illness and grief.

Writer/director Cord Jefferson makes an admirable feature-film directorial debut with “American Fiction.” Jefferson (a former journalist and an Emmy-winning writer of HBO’s 2019 limited series “Watchmen”) adapted the “American Fiction” screenplay from Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.” “American Fiction” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie won the People’s Choice Award, the festival’s top prize. “American Fiction” has since made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Film Festival, where Jefferson received Urbanworld’s Visionary Award.

From the very beginning of “American Fiction,” viewers see that protagonist Thelonious “Monk” Everett (played by Wright) isn’t afraid to possibly offend some people, in order to express his point of view. Monk, who lives and works in Los Angeles, is a literature professor at an unnamed university. During a class session, he has written on the board the name of a book that has the “n” word (derogatory term for a black person) in the book’s title.

Monk, who is African American and in his 50s, has assigned the book as required reading for his class, but one of his students named Brittany (played by Skyler Wright) objects to the title of the book being on the board during the class session, because Brittany says that the “n” word is offensive to her. Most of the students in this class are white, including Brittany, but there are some people of color (including some black people) who are students in the class too.

Brittany says she doesn’t want to see that word during the class session, so she asks Monk to erase the word from the board. Monk refuses and tells Brittany sternly about how he feels about the “n” word being in the title of the book: “With all due respect, I got over it. I’m pretty sure you can too.” Brittany then storms out of the class in a tearful huff, as Monk can be heard shouting at the students to focus on his lecture.

The next scene shows Monk having a meeting in an office room with his supervisor Leo (played by John Ales) and two of his faculty peers named Mandel (played by Patrick Fischler) and Gilda (played by Carmen Cusack), who all tell Monk this latest complaint against him has crossed a line where he has to be held accountable. It’s mentioned that Monk previously offended a student of German heritage by asking the student if the student has Nazi family members. Monk is defiant and gets into a little bit an argument with Mandel, who insults Monk for not having any recently published work.

Monk retorts by saying that he’s working on a book for a publishing house named Echo. It’s not enough to impress Leo, who orders Monk to go on a leave of absence that includes an already planned trip to Boston to go to the Massachusetts Festival of Books. Boston is Monk’s hometown, but he tells his colleagues that he hates Boston. It’s probably one of the reasons why he was sent there.

At the Massachusetts Festival of Books, Monk is a speaker on a panel that is sparsely attended. (There are less than 10 people in the audience.) At the end of the panel, when he comments to a fellow panelist on the low attendance for their session, Monk finds out that a much more popular Q&A at the festival was scheduled at about the same time as his panel. This interview is still taking place when Monk goes to the room to see what’s so special about this Q&A.

In the packed room, the solo speaker who is being interviewed is Sintara Golden (played by Issa Rae), an African American author of a best-selling novel called “We’s Lives in the Ghetto,” which is a racially demeaning story about uneducated and poor African Americans in a crime-ridden area. Sintara reads from the book and gets enthusiastic applause from the racially mixed audience. Monk is offended and jealous that this type of book is a hit, while he is having trouble finding a publisher for his most recent intellectual book, which is a contemporary re-imagining of Aeschylus’ “The Persians.”

While in the Boston area, Monk makes reluctant contact with the family he has barely kept in touch with over the past several years. Monk is a never-married bachelor with no children. His widowed mother and two younger siblings are his closest relatives. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that there are many reasons why Monk has been avoiding his family. Monk’s family has a lot of secrets that are eventually revealed throughout the movie.

Several people in Monk’s dysfunctional family are doctors. His deceased father was a medical doctor. His younger sister Lisa Ellison (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) is a doctor at a clinic called Boston Family Planning. It’s a clinic that provides abortion services, which isn’t said out loud in the story, but it’s implied, based on conversations about how Lisa’s job can be dangerous and controversial. Lisa gives Monk a car ride back to the family home in Boston.

Lisa is divorced with no children. She is also a caretaker for their mother Agnes Ellison (played by Leslie Uggams), who is showing signs of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. For example, Agnes forgets that Lisa is divorced. Agnes has a loyal and friendly housekeeper named Lorraine (played by Myra Lucretia Taylor), who is in her 60s. Lorraine is treated like a member of the family.

Monk’s other younger sibling is Clifford, nicknamed Cliff (played by Sterling K. Brown), a plastic surgeon who is a divorced father. Cliff got divorced because his wife found out that Cliff is gay. Cliff is now dating men in the gay singles scene and abusing cocaine. It’s also revealed in the movie that Cliff has an inferiority complex and feels competitive with Monk because Monk was always treated as the favorite child by their domineering father.

Agnes has a house in Boston and a beach house in an unnamed city in Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard region. Through a series of circumstances, the family members are staying at this beach house for much of the movie. During their stay, Monk meets an intelligent and opinionated neighbor named Coraline (played by Erika Alexander), a public defender attorney who respects Monk’s talent and becomes his love interest. However, Coraline has her own messy marital situation. She’s in the midst divorcing her husband Jelani (played by Michael Jibrin), who still lives with her for financial reasons.

“American Fiction” skillfully weaves all of Monk’s challenges that he faces in his personal life and in his career. At the same time that he’s going through some emotionally taxing family issues, he’s having problems finding a publisher for his latest academically inclined book. As a sarcastic joke, Monk decides to use an alias called Stagg R. Leigh to write a racially demeaning novel called “My Pafology” (intentional misspelling of “Pathology”) about African Americans speaking bad English and being involved in crime. (The book’s title is later changed to a curse word.) A thug character named Van Go Jenkins is the narrator/protagonist of “My Pafology.”

In a story-within-a-story construct, “American Fiction” occasionally depicts characters from the “My Pafology” novel coming to life as Monk is writing the book. In one of the book’s chapters, Van Go Jenkins (played by Okieriete Onaodowan) commits an act of violence against an older man named Willy the Wonker (played by Keith David) in Willy’s home. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see why Monk chose to write this scenario, considering the complicated relationship that Monk’s father had with his wife and children.

Much to the surprise of Monk and his book agent Arthur (played by John Ortiz), “My Pafology” quickly gets an offer of $750,000 from a book publishing company named Thompson Watt that rejected the intellectual book that Monk wrote under Monk’s real name. It just so happens that Monk needs the money because Agnes has to be put in an assisted living home, and Monk is the only one in the family who is willing to pay for it.

As already revealed in the trailer for “American Fiction,” Monk creates the Stagg R. Leigh persona to be an ex-con who was in prison for violent crimes. Monk also fabricates a story that Stagg is currently a fugitive from the law, which is the excuse he uses for why Stagg has to be so mysterious. Monk and Arthur also tell Thompson Watt publishing executive Paula Baderman (played by Miriam Shor) that Stagg R. Leigh is not the author’s real name because of his “fugitive” status. Instead of being wary of doing a deal with a fugitive criminal, Paula thinks it’s intriguing because she thinks this angle will sell more books.

The lies get more complicated after “My Pafology” is published and becomes a hit. On the one hand, Monk feels elated that he has the commercial success that he always wanted, but on the other hand, he feels ashamed by what he had to do to get this success. It isn’t long before Stagg is taking meetings with a Hollywood filmmaker named Wiley Valdespino (played by Adam Brody), who wants to make “My Pafology” into a movie.

“American Fiction” pokes fun at people who think that they’re being hip and progressive for supporting a book like “My Pafology,” when they don’t know or don’t care that this type of book reinforces a negative stereotype that African Americans and other black people are inferior and have lives defined by violence, poverty, crime and/or trauma. Although these issues are undoubtedly struggles for many people, it’s racially problematic to stereotype one race as largely experiencing those struggles. Through characters such as Monk, Agnes and Coraline, “American Fiction” shows the reality that most African Americans are not poor, uneducated or criminals.

There is diversity among African Americans that is not always acknowledged in entertainment that wants to keep African American-oriented entertainment focused on violence, poverty, crime and/or trauma. And when people who don’t know many African Americans get their ideas about African Americans from these negative stereotypes, it perpetuates a lot of racism. At one point in “American Fiction,” book agent Arthur comments about how black people are often represented in the media and entertainment: “White people think they want the truth. They just want to be absolved.”

The very talented ensemble cast in “American Fiction” should be given a lot of credit for embodying their characters with the right mix of dramatic realism and (when appropriate) pitch-perfect comedic timing. Jefferson’s writing is clever and engaging, while his directing shows a knack for juggling multiple storylines at the same time. “American Fiction” is not a movie that singles out one race as “better” than another. Instead, it’s a blistering but honest examination of how people of all races can be complicit in perpetuating negative racial stereotypes, often for selfish reasons.

Through “American Fiction,” Jefferson has crafted a rare social commentary movie that not only invites people to laugh at these problems without feeling guilty about this laughter but also provokes people enough to show how these problems affect people in damaging ways. “American Fiction” doesn’t get preachy about what can be done about these problems. However, this very worthy adaptation of “Erasure” shows that no matter how much legislative progress can be made in civil rights, change also has to come from within people who are willing to make improvements in their own lives.

Orion Pictures will release “American Fiction” in select U.S. cinemas on December 15, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023.

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.

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