The new documentary series Shut Up and Dribble, which premiered the first of its three parts this weekend on Showtime, is a response to commentator Laura Ingraham's dismissive February 2018 sneer in the direction of LeBron James, one of the series' executive producers. Don't take my word for it that it's a direct response: watch the opening sequence in which Ingraham, disgusted by James and other black athletes speaking out against President Donald Trump, says that nobody elected them, nobody wants to hear from them, and they should, yes, just "shut up and dribble."
The idea that athletes—or actors, or writers—shouldn't be politically active in the public sphere is surprisingly widely held. The point of the series is to demonstrate that in the case of black athletes, holding the game at a distance from the society in which it's played is not only contrary to history but impossible. And, perhaps, that it would be irresponsible.
Narrated by writer Jemele Hill and directed by Gotham Chopra, Shut Up And Dribble uses its first installment to chronicle several of professional basketball's early standouts who collided with the wider world in different ways: Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Isaiah Thomas. It follows the NBA through a period in the 1970s when some worried that the increasing number of black players was alienating white audiences—a crisis the end of which it credits to the hugely popular rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. To that picture, Shut Up and Dribble adds the story of the Detroit Pistons and of Thomas, whose comments on how racism influenced the perception of Bird became very controversial, to the point where the broader observation he was making—about who is considered simply a "natural talent" and who is considered a "smart player"—was lost.
People who have watched a lot of NBA documentaries, or who have watched projects like O.J.: Made in America that try to look at the intersection of sports and the world at large, will know a good number of these stories, maybe including the stories of Russell and Robertson, and how Bird was called "the great white hope" whether he wanted to be or not, and how his rivalry with Johnson had—as one commentator wildly understates it—a "tinge" of racial dynamics in it. But there are good segments in the first installment that might be less familiar about the way the ABA and the NBA presented basketball very differently, the way labor issues among players were (and are) inextricably linked to race, and the way Abdul-Jabbar—now a columnist, a comic book writer, and a writer on the upcoming revival of Veronica Mars—decided to decline to try out for the 1968 Olympics.
The next two installments follow the NBA through later phases, up to the present. They consider the era of Michael Jordan and the explosion of endorsement deals—which, the film's interviewees suggest, tamped down public discussions of politics as protection of each athlete's personal brand became critical. They examine the career of Allen Iverson, whose path to the NBA—and his clothes and hair and tattoos and connections to hip-hop—made him a beloved figure to a lot of fans who perhaps didn't relate to Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.