Bill Russell, the great Boston Celtics center who died last summer at the age of 88, cuts a singular figure in the American sports firmament. He revolutionized the game of basketball from a defensive standpoint, turning a previously earthbound art into one defined by explosive verticality, spatial intelligence, and psychological intimidation. He is the greatest winner in the history of American team sports, leading his teams to an astonishing 11 championships in 13 seasons. More than that, he helped redefine the role of the athlete as a political force, becoming an outspoken advocate for civil rights and racial justice in ways previously unthinkable for a star Black athlete. Bill Russell changed his sport, but he also changed the way Americans thought about sports and the people who play them, and their relation to society more broadly. The baseball writer Bill James once famously remarked of Rickey Henderson that you could split his career in two and have two Hall of Famers; one could make a similar argument about Bill Russell, but with regards to his legacies both on the court and off of it.
Russell is the subject of a new Netflix documentary, Bill Russell: Legend, which begins streaming on Feb. 8. It’s a compelling and at times superb film that pays moving tribute to its fascinating and extraordinarily complex subject. It might be the starriest sports documentary I’ve ever seen: I lost track of all the luminaries that appeared onscreen, but they range from living legends like Jerry West, Julius Erving, and Larry Bird to contemporary stars like Steph Curry, Chris Paul, and Jayson Tatum. Some of these interviews are better than others: Russell’s former teammate Tom “Satch” Sanders is a constant delight, while the current players mostly serve up postgame-presser-style platitudes (a forgivable sin, as Russell had retired decades before many of them were born).
Bill Russell: Legend is directed by Sam Pollard, who made the acclaimed 2020 documentary MLK/FBI and co-directed the new Peacock film Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power. Spanning well over three hours in length (the film is split into two parts), Bill Russell: Legend seems strongly influenced by the work of Ken Burns, from the camera frequently drifting over still photographs to the plentiful talking head interviews to the solemn voice-over narration provided by actor Corey Stoll. The film proceeds roughly chronologically through Russell’s life, from his early childhood in Louisiana to his high school and college exploits in California to his run with the Celtics to his late-in-life ascension from elder statesman to national treasure. Its luxurious running time allows ample attention to each of Russell’s 11 championship seasons, as well as the domestic and global upheavals that marked the span of Russell’s playing career (1956-1969).
Pollard deftly wields a trove of footage of Russell’s athletic brilliance, as well as more intimate film of Russell behind the scenes with family, friends, and teammates. The film devotes copious attention to Russell’s activism, particularly in its second part, and doesn’t shy away from some of the challenges that Russell found in finding meaning in his post-playing life, particularly in the years immediately after his retirement. The documentary’s high points are remarkably poignant: A segment early in Part 2 that connects Russell’s childhood obsession with Renaissance paintings to his ordered and fiercely cerebral approach to basketball was so unexpectedly powerful that it choked me up.
Recent years have seen an explosion of sports documentaries, which seem to be among the most reliable non-fiction products in the streaming marketplace. Quality-wise, most of these occupy a vast middle of sorts: compulsively watchable, comfortably formulaic, doggedly devoted to reinforcing conventional wisdom. Sports fans like narratives, the thinking presumably goes, and don’t want to see the stories they’ve told themselves about the games they’ve watched complicated or troubled in any significant way. So we tend to get stories about individual greatness, perseverance, triumph over adversity, and an abiding faith in meritocracy.
These films are fine for what they are, but they tend to avoid any real thorniness, which is a shame because sports are an important part of life for a lot of people, an institution from which they derive meaning and emotional richness and, frankly, an understanding of the world. Sports are culture, in other words, and the myth-maintenance tendencies of sports documentaries ultimately betray a failure to take their subjects seriously. A movie like The Last Dance—in my opinion the ne plus ultra of this sort of streaming sports content—is a lot of fun until it’s over and you realize you just watched an 8-hour documentary about one of the most important cultural figures of the late 20th century and didn’t learn anything new about him. It’s more than a little interesting that what is, for my money, the single best American sports documentary of the 21st century—Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—happens to be a film whose subject was already irretrievably disgraced. Freed from the mandates of legend-printing hagiography, Edelman was able to make a sprawling, piercing film about violence, race, fame, and wealth, turning a story of a once-celebrated athlete into a rumination on modern America itself.
Bill Russell: Legend is better than your average sports documentary, and often a lot better. But it never feels like it’s able to transcend the unfortunate banality of its title for long enough to really do justice to its subject. The film often seems to swim up to the edge of something provocative and profound, only to amiably drift away rather than grabbing hold. A potent segment about Russell’s shifting political conscience in the mid-1960s transitions abruptly into a rote section on what a great trash-talker he was on the court; the film devotes ample time to the well-known stories of racist vandalism committed against Russell’s home in Reading, Massachusetts but mostly glosses over his despicable mistreatment by the Boston media. At one point Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the few athletes alive whose life achievements rival Russell’s own for sheer impressiveness, notes the galling contradictions of a society that worships Black athletic celebrity while failing to recognize the full humanity of its Black citizenry more broadly. It’s a topic more than worthy of a three-hour documentary, and yet the film seems content to let it hang in the air rather than follow it.
It’s perhaps fitting that most of the film’s most penetrating insights come from Russell himself. Throughout the film Jeffrey Wright reads excerpts from Russell’s own writing, most notably his extraordinary 1979 book Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, co-written with Taylor Branch. (Branch, who would become a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights movement, appears in the documentary as well, albeit too briefly.) There’s Russell reminiscing on the magic of acquiring his first library card after his family moved from Louisiana to Oakland in the early 1940s; Russell’s description of the particular brand of racism he experienced among white Massachusetts liberals (“For them, ‘colorblind’ meant that Blacks would be invisible”); Russell recalling his grandfather attending a Celtics game and breaking down in tears when he realized that Russell’s Black and white teammates not only showered in the same locker room but were actually friends with one another. Second Wind is shamefully out of print; perhaps this film, and a general resurgence of interest in Russell since his death, can help rectify that. If there’s one thing Bill Russell: Legend reminds us, it’s that there’s a lot more left to learn from the life and times of Bill Russell.