For a moment, let’s table the #MeToo/Time’s Up movement dominating Hollywood (and the country), and the on-the-record rape allegations made against Kobe Bryant by a young woman who was intimidated out of testifying against him, and first discuss the Oscar-nominated animation short, “Dear Basketball.”
On the eve of Bryant’s retirement, he wrote a poem to basketball. It’s the type of “love of the sport” schmaltz usually reserved for horrible children’s books, but in this case was turned into a voiceover (read by Bryant) and animated with highlights from the NBA superstar’s career juxtaposed against a small child intently learning the game. The elliptical animation is meant to feel like memory, reminding the audience that the small child who passionately fell in love with the game still burns inside Bryant despite the championships, the fame, the tireless hard work, and extreme bodily pain – Bryant was widely considered the hardest-working athlete in basketball and played through injuries that would have sidelined most.
For hoops fans, “Dear Basketball” is nothing new. Since 2004, Bryant has carefully taken control of his image and rebranded himself like no other athlete in the internet era. Press access limited and negotiated, images controlled by Bryant, who even had a Showtime crew documenting his last season. Bryant, who went to high school in Italy and skipped college on his way to the NBA, has always been seen as aloof, never connecting with fellow players in a sport where teammates are visibly and openly the best of friends. A fierce competitor on the level of Michael Jordan, Bryant was an assassin on the court and did not hide his displeasure with his teammates. He even had abrasive relationships with the affable Shaquille O’Neil – who he ran out of Los Angeles – and zen master Phil Jackson (both Jackson and O’Neil are now on friendly terms with Bryant).
Branded content like “Dear Basketball,” designed to create a counternarrative of the great Kobe, is something that has induced eye rolls from sports fans for 13 years — except for those in Los Angeles and especially Hollywood, where good seats to Lakers games are a status symbol. When they are winning, the Lakers are the biggest celebrities in town. It was this powerful and recognizable fanbase – the b-roll cameras for every televised game finding the endless array of celebrities in the crowd – that made what seemed like Bryant’s near-impossible comeback in 2004, following the events in Eagle, Colo., possible.
To briefly summarize – and please understand the reporting on this story is deep and extensive – in advance of knee surgery, Bryant checked into the nearby Lodge and Spa at Cordillera. The next day, a 19-year old hotel employee accused him of raping her in his room. Only once he was told by police that the victim submitted to a rape kit and there was physical evidence – including semen, back, and neck bruises (from choking) – did Bryant admit to having sexual intercourse with the victim. His defense was that strangling women during sex was his “thing” (though not with his wife) and that while the victim had not given verbal consent, he assumed based on the way she kissed him he had consent for rough sex that left the women severely bruised. When asked how hard he was holding onto her neck, Bryant answered, “My hands are strong. I don’t know.”
After submitting to a physical examination and a lie-detector test, Bryant was arrested five days after the alleged attack. The victim’s non-menstrual blood was found on Bryant’s clothes. As hearings began, Bryant’s high-priced defense team wasted no time attacking the victim, building the case that her vaginal trauma was consistent with having had multiple sex partners in one day and dug into her anti-psychotic drug prescriptions and history of hospitalization. Prosecutors reluctantly dropped charges against Bryant when the victim said she was unwilling to testify. A civil lawsuit was settled, terms undisclosed, and Bryant issued an apology to the young woman.
His public-relations apology started with making sure the press knew he gave his wife a $4 million ring to make amends for his infidelities. “Dear Basketball” and Bryant’s nauseating “goodbye” tour from basketball are part of a 13-year, carefully orchestrated career rehabilitation that found the player regaining an estimated $150 million in endorsements and bringing two additional championships to Los Angeles.
Which begs the question: Would “Dear Basketball” have been nominated had Bryant played for the Milwaukee Bucks? Or was this simply the knee-jerk votes of LA fan boys who long ago demonstrated they are far from objective about their favorite player?
In my opinion, it is the worst short film I have ever seen nominated for an Academy Award. And let me be clear, this isn’t Oscar-snubbing talk – like I think “Mudbound” and “The Florida Project” are better than a totally competently made movie like “Darkest Hour” – this piece of hagiography is completely empty of form and substance. It doesn’t belong on the ESPN halftime show of Bryant’s last game, let alone being recognized as one of the five best animated shorts of the year.
As a film lover, what is offensive to me is there are so few outlets for the amazing independent animation work that is out there. With Pixar consistently laying claim to one of the animated short nominations, this is yet another slot that could have gone to an artist for whom the recognition would be career elevating and defining. By the way, if anybody from the animation shorts nominating committee would like to explain why “Dear Basketball” is better than Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts,” the floor is yours. You can have an IndieWire guest column. We’ll put it under the “Consider This” banner and awards alert it. You are a professional craftsperson with more knowledge of animation than me; I want to know what I am missing here.
What’s insane is that in the midst of an awards season dominated by #metoo – in which the most-read story on IndieWire this last week was Allison Brie politely commenting at the SAG Awards about the accusations made against her brother-in-law James Franco – Academy members thought it would be a good idea to introduce Bryant, a six-foot-six-inch accused rapist and bigger international celebrity than any two other nominees combined – to the Oscar red carpet, lunch and photo.
Instead of being a time where for five weeks Greta Gerwig, Dee Rees and Rachel Morrison can be spotlighted for their groundbreaking and incredibly deserved recognition, publicists have to prepare them to answer questions about Bryant. And let me give you a little preview of what the questions will sound like. Here’s a passage from Bryant’s public apology to his sexual assault victim:
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
And for what? This shitty short, that’s what: