commentary + critique

from tamryn spruill

Review: Chiney Ogwumike’s “144” is a revolutionary work of journalistic art

May 13, 2021

By Tamryn Spruill

Tealight candles flicker dragonfly-like light in the Florida night sky, the plastic cups holding them clink gentle, yet somber hellos.

It is Aug. 26, 2020, three days after a police officer in Wisconsin emptied seven bullets into the back of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old African-American man, leaving him without his colon or small intestines and paralyzed from the waist down.

“Of course, today’s been quite an eventful day,” WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike said before a crowd of her peers. As she spoke, the players, donning masks that left uncovered only their sober eyes, accepted candles one-by-one. “This moment is a reminder of the non-negotiables that we had going into the season.”

The 144 players of the WNBA had arrived to the IMG Academy campus in Bradenton, Fla., months before, for a pandemic-condensed and -shortened season — unsure they could be kept safe inside the environment that would come to be known as the “wubble.” Yet, the season had played out inside confinement that left the likes of Jewell Loyd and other players feeling “trapped,” tasked with shoring up mental strength to match the physical strength they were known for on the court.

Calling the latest act of police violence against a Black body “a tragic, disgusting act against human rights,” WNBPA vice-president Layshia Clarendon said. “And we’re exhausted, but we’re in this together.”

And, thus, begins “144,” a documentary from ESPN Films about the WNBA’s season 2020 season of social justice amid pandemic. It was created by four female filmmakers: WNBA player and ESPN broadcaster Chiney Ogwumike, co-directors Lauren Stowell and Jenna Contreras and producer Allison Galer, C. Ogwumike’s agent.

Debuting Thursday May 13 (9 p.m. ET on ESPN), “144” welcomes viewers into their world, the women of the 2020 WNBA season who entered the wubble in Florida, a coronavirus hotspot, as a unified front in the fight against racism, police brutality and injustice.

When the players entered the wubble, they never could have predicted the need to hold a candlelight vigil for another victim of state-sanctioned violence while entrenched in the work of demanding justice for Breonna Taylor and other Black women killed by police in collaboration with the #SayHerName campaign.

They never could have foreseen the need to support a political candidate, or that doing so would flip Georgia’s senate seats from red to blue, thus, changing the majority in the U.S. Senate from Republican control to Democratic.

Yet, despite literally changing the balance of power in the U.S. government, the 144 players in the WNBA wubble, the majority of whom are Black, could not secure justice for one Black woman killed by police, Taylor, underscoring the depths of systemic racism and the bottom-rung status of Black women in this country.

Finally, we see the gravity of their sacrifices, both myriad and taxing: the family and friends they left behind, the difficulties of raising young children into an unusual environment they wanted to leave but could not. And or the 80-percent Black women of the league, their sacrifices often were anguished.

“That’s where the fight comes from,” Natalie Achonwa said of being a Black woman engaged in this activism. “That’s where the passion comes from. It could’ve been me. It couldn’t been my sister. It could’ve been my teammate.”

From outside the wubble, C. Ogwumike and her team produced a poignant and compelling documentation of the players’ work — much of it intense, emotional labor — the WNBA-viewing was not privy to while it was happening. It shows powerhouse athletes in their very vulnerable human reality.

And while factions of mainstream sports media continue to miss the mark — one outlet gave its social justice award not to any of the Black players greatly impacted by the movement they founded, but to a white ally — C. Ogwumike has pulled off a revolutionary act. “144” gives long overdue attention and respect to her sister, Nneka, whose leadership in the players’ union — from the landmark CBA of 2020 to the season in the wubble — has advanced both the league and women’s sports generally. And considering the persistent erasure of Black women’s voices, stories and contributions from all segments of society, the power of candid, humane visibility cannot be underestimated.

At its core, though, “144” is a gripping piece of artistic journalism, and one that would be deserving of any award bestowed on this genre of filmmaking and the filmmakers themselves.