At first sight, We Are: The Brooklyn Saints is a pretty straightforward bit of inspirational docufiller. A group of kids in a hardscrabble part of Brooklyn are molded into one of the nation’s premier pee-wee football teams by a group of hard-working Black men. That’s the message of the trailer and opening few minutes of this satisfying four-part docuseries produced by Imagine’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.
But keep watching and you realize that the director, Rudy Valdez, has something different in mind. By the second hour I noticed we weren’t learning much about these kids’ backstories. Where were the heartbreaking tales about absentee parents, older siblings in jail, and other hardships? For that matter, where were the dramatic game narratives? Where was the arc of a championship season?
That’s when it dawned on me that Valdez was not making a film about boys or football. He was making a film about men. We like to talk a lot these days about the fragility of our institutions — governments, churches, schools — but Valdez, it seems to me, is calling attention to masculinity as an institution under fire. This can be seen in Valdez’s directing debut in 2018, HBO’s The Sentence, which started as a personal project. His sister had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for (what I would call) a petty offense, and Valdez found himself documenting the carnage that mandatory-sentencing laws had wreaked on her family, and millions of others. The Sentence was about a man struggling with the hand he’d been rather unfairly dealt — a wife in prison and a family to raise. The reverse is more common, with men in prison, but the outcome is the same — the institution of the family is undermined by an ever-expanding criminal justice system. We talk a lot about systemic racism and economic inequality as though everyone understands what those are and that they are very bad. What Valdez, himself a Brooklynite, is exploring is the impact of these social harms on a personal level, on the streets where he lives. (I would suggest to budding filmmakers that there are many such stories to tell out in rural America as well.)
Of course, We Are: The Brooklyn Saints is a different project from The Sentence, and is ultimately an inspirational film, though not in the traditional sports-documentary fashion. It’s probably closest to Hoop Dreams in spirit (and length), but while that classic film was about two kids and the families living their dreams vicariously, this docuseries is about something larger, what I would call the building of social capital. Here we have a group of men in the inner city of New York, apparently all of them working-class, all determined that their boys have a better life. One Saints coach moved his family 50 miles north of the city for some peace and quiet, accepting the brutal commutes as a price worth paying.
These men can’t do much about racism or injustice, but when local schools and Police Athletic Leagues discontinue their after-school sports programs, it’s a loss of social capital they can actually do something about. And there’s a potentially big payoff — college scholarships and a chance for their boys to climb the social ladder. “As long as you can get to college and get a free education, I’ve done my job,” says one. Another coach brags that the free-ride is the “cheat code” that these families have discovered for getting their boys ahead in the world. Coach Demel, one of the team’s founders, talks about the prospect that his 13-year-old Kenan, the 13U quarterback, might get hurt playing for the Saints: “It’s a little scary because, you know, we have so much invested in his career.” Well, yes, but Demel is slow to recognize that Kenan, who’s a whiz at robotics, may have other prospects.
Yet it’s clear throughout We Are: The Brooklyn Saints that the adults have their eyes on a bigger prize. Yes, they are passionate about winning — “I don’t accept punishment, I give it!” is one of many mantras barked out by Saints players and coaches. And they do want those free-rides for their kids. But they also see every season as a triumph for their larger aim of supporting these boys in their precarious path to manhood. We see the boys luxuriating on camping retreats and at pool parties far from Brooklyn, simple suburban escapes where they can clear their heads and wonder about the possibilities their young lives hold before them.
But again, I think this is above all a film about men. Valdez spends by far the most time with two coaches who appear to be in the most economically and societally precarious positions of all the men in the Saints corps, and we see how mentoring boys is giving them back what social harms have taken away. The first is Coach Vick. He’s 50 and has a nine-year-old son, nicknamed D-Lo, who’s quarterback on the 9-and-under team. In the second episode Vick is arrested by the NYPD right outside the park where the team is practicing. As we eventually learn, he had been pulled over for running a traffic light and when running his license, the cops found a long-unpaid parking ticket. So he has to go into the station. If you’ve seen the infuriating Hulu film Crime & Punishment you know this kind of aggressive over-policing for profit is the NYPD’s stock-in-trade. But instead of playing the victim, Vick takes the arrest like, well, like a man. “Coach Vick's got a little something he's gotta take care of,” he says, tears welling in his (and D-Lo’s) eyes. Later he comes back and gives the team a little lesson on taking responsibility. His stance is even more brave if you believe (as I do) that he is clearly the victim of systemic racism.
Another, Coach Gawuala, has done menial work all his life and is unemployed when We Are: The Brooklyn Saints begins. For me, the most touching moment in the project comes when Gawuala takes a phone call from a potential employer about a job cleaning up a psychiatric facility. Around the Saints, though, he’s something of a cult figure. His enthusiasm and team spirit are infectious (“Rule number one? Have fun! Rule number two? Have fun!”), even as the team disappoints on the gridiron. Being a volunteer coach doesn’t pay a dime, but mentoring boys on the 9U team — “I’m raising a lot of them,” he says — seems to be the job he was born to do. The fact that he does not have an actual job, however, and does have a family to support, has Gawuala at times fighting back feelings of failure. “When you a coach,” he says, “people put you on a pedestal, they look at you as a perfection person. I’m far from perfect.”
In contrast to another Netflix series, Last Chance U, especially the turbulent fourth season, the coaches on the Brooklyn Saints understand that they are there primarily to mold the next generation of men, not advance their own careers. Last Chance U shows how football and masculinity can get overheated when put into the pressure cooker together. That dynamic is not absent from We Are: The Brooklyn Saints, but it's mostly limited to the games themselves. These are frighteningly chaotic affairs that Valdez, an accomplished cinematographer, has captured in all their confusion by running around on the field with the boys. Some viewers will rightly question whether children as young as seven should be taking part in these games and the full-contact practices leading up to them. One little guy nicknamed Man Man, who looks about four feet tall, gets clocked in a helmet-to-helmet tackle and is put through the barest of concussion protocols. “This is football,” some grown-up says. “This is what makes you tough.”
Almost 200 years ago, when Tocqueville sang the praises of small voluntary groups to undergird democracy, he couldn’t have imagined a group of boys playing a violent game in the inner city. As someone infected with Chiefs fever, I’m hardly one to complain about the exalted position of tackle football in our society, but it does seem there ought to be ways to build social capital other than having small boys running into each other. (For what it’s worth, Brooklynite and Good Lord Bird author James McBride teaches kids to play jazz instead.) But in the end, the triumph of We Are: The Brooklyn Saints is that a community has come together to repair a little piece of the social fabric, and that ought to be celebrated.
We Are: The Brooklyn Saints drops on Netflix January 29th.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.