Friday, December 17, 2021

OPINION: ESPN's Bubba Wallace documentary manages to both intrigue and disappoint

PHOTO: Brock Beard

What was the purpose of making “Fistful of Steel: The Rise of Bubba Wallace?” Fresh off his first career Cup Series win, and on the eve of 23XI Racing’s expansion into a two-car team, Wallace's is very much a story that’s still being written.

If the film’s purpose was to simply to present a biography of Wallace, it largely succeeds. We learn so much about who he is, and both the people and events that have shaped his life. Most revealing are the interviews with his parents, who during their marriage attempted to reconcile two very different outlooks on life. We see the direct effect on Wallace himself, especially when his parents offered contradictory advice about how to handle a traffic stop. Their divorce, and the subsequent estranged relationship between Wallace and his father, remains a subject so sensitive that all three won’t talk about it, shedding new light on Wallace’s battle with depression.  

Racing, then, must have been an escape for Wallace and the film does a good job chronicling most of his rise through the ranks of stock car racing. His success in the Truck Series dovetails perfectly with the included biography of Wendell Scott, and we see how much Wallace’s success means to the Scott family – especially his 2014 win in a Scott “throwback” scheme.

This is the strongest part of the film because it clears up two misconceptions some outside the sport have about Wallace. First, Wallace is a skilled driver who has won on some of NASCAR’s toughest tracks. And second, well before 2020, Wallace was popular with both fans and drivers. Yes, Wallace does share stories about his negative experiences with law enforcement. But, in the first hour or so, there are no stories of competitors intimidating him, nor of fans booing him. In fact, we see him take pictures with everyone.

Unfortunately, this part of the film also leaves out other significant moments of his career that highlighted both his personality and his unique place in the sport. The film incorrectly states the 2018 Daytona 500 was his Cup debut, leaving out any mention of 2017. This prevents us from reliving his entire XFINITY career, which put him in position to relieve an injured Aric Almirola at Richard Petty Motorsports. There is no mention of his Cup debut at Pocono, where his closest friend Ryan Blaney scored his first win with the Wood Brothers, nor images of the two celebrating in victory lane as young stars driving two of NASCAR’s most iconic rides. In fact, Blaney is never mentioned, nor interviewed. There’s not even an account of Wallace’s hard-fought victory in the 2019 Monster Energy Open, nor other examples of him outperforming for a small team.  


Was this film intended to settle once and for all what happened at Talladega in June 2020, and to make clear to Wallace’s detractors how those events differed from the recently decided case involving Jussie Smollett? If this was the film’s intent, it failed. 

The events of 2020 – and especially Talladega – are so integral to Wallace’s story that they could be the subject of an entirely separate documentary. It is no mystery that those few days in June – not Wallace’s race – are why he has become a controversial figure in the eyes of so many. That single event changed him, or perhaps revealed a side of himself we never saw. We don’t know which because the entire chapter is compressed into the film’s last fifteen minutes.

Approaching this properly would have required asking some difficult questions. Did Wallace tie the knot in his garage door pull? No – and the footage of the stall from 2019 proves this. Did Wallace make the initial report to NASCAR? No – he wasn’t even aware it had been reported until Steve Phelps contacted him. But it is undeniable that Wallace dismissed the FBI’s findings and continued to state the garage door pull was, in his words, “a straight-up noose.” At the very least, that is a controversial stance to take, and worth a few follow-up questions. Equally controversial was the interview where the Wallace family alleged that the FBI’s findings were nothing more than a “conspiracy theory.” Again, this is not discussed further.

The film also fails to hold NASCAR accountable for their baffling decision to release a public statement about the “noose” during an ongoing investigation. Even with Steve Phelps in the room, we don't get the story. It’s never asked why NASCAR didn’t consult their own video footage showing the same knot next to Paul Menard’s car the previous October (which also meant Wallace’s car was parked in a different stall). The fear that accompanied the racial strife of that spring does not excuse this. The sanctioning body should have handled this incident with more care, not less – particularly with the then-ongoing Smollett case fresh in everyone’s mind. Instead, NASCAR created a scenario where if they were wrong – and they were – Wallace would be blamed for it – which he was – and comparisons to Smollett – no matter how unjustified – were certain to happen. 

The media also escapes unscathed despite their role in furthering the misinformation that day - perhaps not all that surprising since ESPN joined in the chorus. Yes, COVID-19 regulations at the time prevented media members from accessing the garage to actually see the garage pull in question. But, like NASCAR, that meant they had to be more careful in their reporting, not less. 

When NASCAR first broke word about the “noose,” ESPN’s Ryan McGee was among the many media members who let his outrage overcome his objectivity. He published an open letter to the person responsible for the alleged crime, and in his overzealousness invoked the rhetoric of a lynch mob: “And if you were hiding in plain sight among those in that image,” he closed, “then your time among them is numbered because the hunt is on. You know it too.” It must also be said that, when the FBI subsequently reported no hate crime had occurred, McGee was one of the only media members to apologize, and in his video posted that week made a call that journalists should “pump the brakes.” 

Sadly, most others in the press did not follow McGee's example. They expressed no contrition for their rush to judgment and assumed no responsibility, even though they had implicated crew members, emergency personnel, and NASCAR officials who were the only people even allowed in the garage that weekend. This, too, didn’t make it into the documentary, despite McGee’s significant involvement in the project.

With so much left unresolved, we – Wallace included – are all now living with the consequences. Tainted are images of one of the most poignant moments in sports as an entire garage rallied around their driver, saying in no uncertain terms, “if you’ve got a problem with him, you’ve got a problem with all of us.” The tragedy of that moment is that, if NASCAR had spontaneously decided to celebrate Wallace the exact same way just one week, one month, or one year earlier, no one would have minded, and it would still be celebrated as it should have been. Shrugging one’s shoulders and saying, “well, thank goodness there wasn’t a hate crime,” does not transport us all into this alternate reality.

When deciding to make this documentary, ESPN had an opportunity - and arguably the duty - to set the record straight about Bubba Wallace and persuade at least some of his doubters to see him in a new light. While Wallace’s biography dispelled some of the more flagrant lies made about him, nothing was done to address his unpleasant truths. By not only failing to do this, but actively making the truth even harder to find, ESPN has not championed justice, but inhibited it.

1 comment:

MarshallDog said...

I don't think there was any action or direction NASCAR and Bubba Wallace could have taken on this issue for it not to have been the subject of racist conspiracy mongering. Those people decided long before the "noose" incident that Bubba Wallace only reached NASCAR's top level due to his skin color.

I also don't blame Bubba Wallace or his family for their reaction to the FBI's investigation. It's much easier for a white person to accept the findings of law enforcement, but it's not so easy for members of historically oppressed minority groups. This is what the results of structural racism looks like; a black man reacts to a perceived threat, a power structure historically used to keep his race suppressed tells him to calm down, then places the burden on him for overreacting rather than on themselves for past mistreatment of his kind.

NASCAR's decision to support Wallace so opulently, particularly in Alabama, especially after banning the use of the confederate flag partly due to Wallace's influence, should stand as a historic moment. We really should look at it in a vacuum; a sport dominated by white fans in the south, that once took a trophy away from their only black driver, is not going to wait for an investigation when their only black driver is possibly threatened. Having Bubba Wallace's back was more than justified by every other circumstance of his existence in the Cup series in spite of racist vitriol against him.

As far as the media is concerned, I've come to expect so little. It's another example of the obsession with getting the story out fast as opposed to correctly. Too much of "news" these days seems to be editorial rather that factual, and talking heads are always going to race to be the most sanctimonious. We should all feel free to pile on when they screw up.