Emmy winner Sam Pollard has made a career of crafting carefully thought-out documentaries. His subjects have included Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., and Arthur Ashe among others. Basketball great Bill Russell is the latest figure Pollard focuses on for Netflix’s Bill Russell: Legend.
Bill Russell has the distinction of being the ultimate winner in professional team sports. He led the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association to an unprecedented 11 NBA championships in 13 years (two in the double role of player/coach). Pollard’s film also focuses not only on the physical prowess Russell possessed that allowed him to dominate the competition but on his genius mind. Russell meticulously studied and obsessed over the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He considered how the geometry and mathematics in these works could be implemented to create art on the basketball court. Bill Russell was a true revolutionary of basketball.
Russell was also a revolutionary of civil rights. While winning championships on the court, Russell also played a key part along with other high-profile Black athletes in standing and fighting for civil action. Like every black athlete of the time, Russell faced the racist irony of being adulated as a championship-winning basketball player but being hated as a person. As long as Russell “shut up and played”, fans were all too happy to cheer for him, the moment he decided to move into a new neighborhood, they were all too willing to vandalize his home.
The documentary seamlessly shifts back and forth between highlights of Russell’s basketball career and the events happening in the world around him. For every challenge overcome to achieve championship glory, there are wholly different challenges that present themselves against civil rights. Russell suffers from survivor’s remorse, struggling to come to terms with his place in society, but never shying away from standing for what he believes is right or from speaking his truth.
The documentary remains consistent in tone and structure throughout its three-hour and 20-minute run time. Corey Stoll narrates the events while excerpts from memoirs and articles written by Russell are recounted by Jeffrey Wright. For casual basketball fans not obsessed with the history of the sport, moments focusing on Russell’s on-court accomplishments may be overlong and uninteresting.
A specific focus on the relationship Russell had with his on-court rival Wilt Chamberlain is also covered in the documentary. This topic could very well be its own documentary subject and even though it is practically impossible to cover Russell without mentioning Chamberlain, these moments lack true depth and ultimately feel shoe-horned in within the documentary’s context. Where the documentary truly leaves its mark is when it focuses on the social struggles American society and Bill Russell faced during that time. It excels at focusing on the elements that made Russell human. Pollard also offers plenty of archival footage displaying both Russell’s on-court dominance and horrifying acts of racism and hate, submerging viewers into an era not far removed and unfortunately all too similar to the present day.
Bill Russell: Legend succeeds in shining a light on Bill Russell the basketball icon as well as Bill Russell the civil rights leader. A true pioneer both on and off the court, he paved the way for many other athletes that would be faced with the same challenges he had to endure. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr., he stood by Muhammad Ali and knelt with Colin Kaepernick. He represented his team and his people and inspired many to do the same.
The admiration and respect for all that Bill Russell represents are palpable on the faces of the different people interviewed for the documentary. A statue was erected in his honor in Boston, something that Russell was vehemently against. As he was told, the gesture was more for the city than for him. In the same way, this documentary is also more for its viewers than for him. Hopefully, it will resonate enough so that Bill Russell’s life work will soon not be forgotten and continue to inspire.