Stay Tuned: ‘89 Blocks’ offers a too familiar football story
The idea that football is a pathway to realizing the American dream drives the action in “89 Blocks,” a documentary that focuses on a season of the Flyers, an East St. Louis high school football team. For many of the young men on the team, football is a ticket out of poverty and it represents hope that their future will be better than their present. It’s a naturally compelling theme and not an uncommon one so “89 Blocks” needs to set itself apart from similar stories. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
The film begins with head coach Darren Sunkett yelling at a player, “You tell your team why you can’t learn assignments,” and continues with him asking that player what 6x6 is. When he answers “12,” Sunkett turns to the team exasperated and says, “See what we’re dealing with?” It’s a hard moment for reasons that go beyond football and that is perhaps the point. But underneath Sunkett’s tough demeanor is a man who coaches for person reasons. “I got into this thing to help guys like myself,” he says yet reveals little. In a later scene, Sunkett is interviewed in his home while his wife and young daughter are busy in the background. For much of it, he is lying on a couch while he speaks to the filmmaker. It sets an odd tone of nonchalance that undermines the seriousness of the points he is trying to make.
Other scenes feel set-up. In one that takes place in the middle of a neighborhood street, a player is talking to his older brother who is stressing that he needs to make something of himself and get out of East St. Louis. The player nods and agrees. When we do meet individual players, their stories feel incomplete. Jeff Thomas, a standout who has multiple college offers, is shown at home with his baby daughter and says she has given him a reason to succeed. Later, he is described as the breadwinner for his entire family and while his attitude toward his parental and familial responsibilities is mature and admirable, the overall portrait of Jeff is unclear, as are his motivations beyond a general desire to improve his economic circumstances.
Produced by LeBron James, “89 Blocks” is the first installment in the “Magnify” series from Fox Sports Films. James is heavily used in the marketing of the film, which is smart publicity. But good PR only goes so far and James’ comments on the YouTube clips that promote the film lean toward cliché. In one, he talks about the meaning of the Flyers’ football season as “so much bigger than a win or a loss.”
The film similarly relies on generalizations, knowing that the overall theme of sport as a way out is impactful without having to add much to it. The approach is problematic because this common concept needs to distinguish itself to be memorable. With little backstory on the featured high school athletes and a head coach who is committed but seems generally uninterested in the filming process, “89 Blocks” is easy to forget.
“89 Blocks” screens on demand.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing’” and the recently released “The American Television Critic.” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.