Some of the most acclaimed documentaries of recent decades have come out of the arena of sports, among them Hoop Dreams (1994), When We Were Kings (1996), Senna (2010), O.J.: Made in America (2016), Icarus (2017), and The Last Dance (2020).
Netflix continues that distinguished tradition with a pair of Emmy-contending documentary series with a sports connection: Untold, from Emmy-winning directors Maclain and Chapman Way, and Naomi Osaka, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Garrett Bradley (Time). Bradley’s documentary on the 24-year-old tennis sensation – winner of four Grand Slam singles titles – explores Osaka’s background as the daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian father, her emergence both as a player and an activist for racial justice, and her openness about dealing with mental health issues in the public spotlight.
Bradley sees Osaka as being in the vanguard of a new kind of superstar athlete. “You’re connecting with people not in a way that is about aspiration, that is unachievable and unattainable excessively,” the director noted during an appearance at a Netflix FYSEE panel in Hollywood. “You’re connecting with people by sharing your experience and your journey. And I think more and more that’s what people are demanding… She’s really at the forefront of it.”
The Way Brothers’ Untold consists of five episodes, each of them examining an overlooked or misunderstood story or figure from sports. The episode titled “Breaking Point” focuses on former top American tennis player Mardy Fish, who suffered a panic attack before the biggest match of his career at the 2012 U.S. Open against Roger Federer. He later made the brave decision to speak publicly about experiencing anxiety disorder.
“He was really kind of the first professional athlete while still playing to go on the record about suffering from mental illness,” Chapman Way said at the FYSEE event. “That was 2015, which at the time was almost like an incredibly dangerous thing to do as an athlete… Talking to Mardy and realizing he really wanted to draw back the curtains and talk openly about his mental health and his battle — for us, as filmmakers, I think we realized this is just a truly incredible story that should be documented.”
Another episode focuses on Christy Martin, one of the first stars of women’s professional boxing, who struggled with coming out as gay. She also dealt with an abusive husband who shot and stabbed her in a near-fatal attack in 2010. “Malice in the Palace,” meanwhile, examines a notorious incident at a 2004 NBA game between the Indiana Pacers and the home team Detroit Pistons when a fracas broke out between unruly fans and Pacers stars. Commentators at the time branded as “thugs” the African American Pacers players involved, inviting the incident to be perceived through a racial lens. The league abandoned the players, ignoring video evidence showing Pistons partisans were responsible for provoking the fight.
The Untold episode devoted to Caitlyn Jenner centers on someone we thought we knew all about, but uses never-before-seen archival material to tell the story of Jenner’s athletic accomplishments and simultaneous battle to come to terms with her gender identity.
“The central engine of these documentaries, the central conflict, really in none of our films, I would say, have anything to do with who’s going to win, who’s going to lose, who’s going to win the championship,” Maclain Way explained. “For us, it’s always like, great, let’s have sports be the setting. But whether it’s Mardy Fish and a mental health documentary or whether it’s ‘Malice in the Palace’ and how these professional basketball players were labeled for the rest of their lives, whether it’s Caitlyn Jenner and gender identity issues, Christy Martin and the domestic violence that she faced in her life — we’re always interested in how to take these stories and grow them beyond the court, beyond the field.”
The same is true of Naomi Osaka, which places the tennis star’s effort to define herself and establish her identity in the context of larger societal issues. At the 2020 U.S. Open, as America confronted the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, Osaka stepped onto the court for each of her matches wearing a different mask acknowledging Black people killed in racial or racist incidents – including Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Philando Castile, and Elijah McClain.
Bradley describes Osaka’s evolution as being “about purpose and self-worth and about courage to kind of identify and also embrace one’s personal values and then to try to actually see if you can make those align with your work, with your public self. That’s at a very young age, what she was doing, and on a stage in a very public space.”
Naomi Osaka is streaming on Netflix, as is Untold and two other documentary projects directed by Maclain and Chapman Way – the 2014 film The Battered Bastards of Baseball and the 2018 mega-hit Wild Wild Country, winner of a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series.
Watch the Netflix FYSEE panel on Naomi Osaka and Untold by clicking on the video above.