It’s not something that sticks out right away, but the longer that “We Are the Brooklyn Saints” goes into its four episodes, the emphasis slowly drifts from where the Saints are in their own season. The result is that the new Netflix documentary series becomes a story about a youth football team that’s freer from a schedule than most other shows of its kind.
“I knew early on that I didn’t want it to be, ‘Episode 1: Game 1. Let’s see, if they win or lose.’ I think that this is more a look at a football organization and the people involved in it, and how they interact with each other, the essence of who they are as people,” series director Rudy Valdez said. “I don’t want to always find that kid or that character or that person who is the super-duper unique story that’s a one in a million. I like to find characters that are emblematic of the larger group, and I think that that happens in a lot of different levels with this.”
It’s even more important when profiling the Saints, an organization designed to give neighborhood kids a chance to play at different age groups before they join a high school squad. As the director of his own series, Valdez wanted to take the opportunity to provide a perspective on a team and a community that was in the huddle along with them and not peering in through a window.
“I’m very conscious of the other football stories, and not even just those, that go into underserved communities or communities that generally have that moniker put on them. I wanted to make something different, mainly because I grew up feeling underserved and like, I didn’t have a voice. Even that is not a monolith. There’s not just one version of growing up in that environment,” Valdez said. “So going into the Saints program, I wanted it to be told from the inside out, instead of starting it with ‘This is what East New York is. Here’s gang porn, here’s poverty porn, here’s woe-is-me porn.’ I wanted you to meet the coaches and the players and the parents and let you love them, and let them be emblematic of what it means to grow up where they’re growing up.”
A key part of that process was navigating a challenge facing anyone telling a story with children at the center. Valdez wanted to avoid projecting too much onto them, forcing them into the same “monolith” model that some stories take with similar subjects.
“This is a critical time for them. Not only to see them at a stage where they’re having these impressionable moments from their coaches and their parents, but I also wanted to leave room for you to understand that they’re boys. They’re kids. That’s important, and it’s important to see them in that manner,” Valdez said. “I don’t want to other-ize somebody at the get-go. That makes you watch their story as a voyeur and saying, ‘Well, they’re from this place that is so different from me and so separate from my experience. I’m going to watch them from the outside in.’ As opposed to letting you get to know them and see the relatable qualities that we all share across this country, that we’re boys, we’re kids, we want that experience.”
Valdez wanted to do that for the coaches, too. There are certainly scenes in “We Are: The Brooklyn Saints” where the men in charge are pushing those on their team to fulfill their potential.
At the same time, that also meant recognizing how players on the team are in charge of some key decisions that affect them. Much like the family members and guardians that try to instill both a love of the game and a passion for off-the-field pursuits, the show acknowledges the way that some of the most talented players show some hesitancy about building their life around the game.
“Dave has a wonderful line where he says, ‘Men do wonderful things when they lead with their heart.’ I want people to go away with that, because they’re not doing things that are impossible to do. They’re doing things that take effort, but I wanted people to say we can do that in our community, we can be those sort of leaders for our kids in our community,” Valdez said. “The Saints are emblematic of Detroit, of Omaha, of New Orleans, of all of these different cities across the country. I grew up playing sports, I grew up coaching sports, and sometimes you lose sight of the fact that these are kids and they should be having fun and we should be guiding them. I want that to be a part of this, the importance of the time you put in with kids.”
To spend this much time with a team and to show their daily lives outside of practices and scrimmages and games, Valdez wanted to be as open and understanding with the greater Saints family as he wanted them to be with him.
“I’m somebody who wears my heart on my sleeve. I’m maybe honest to a fault with everyone about why I’m here and what I’m trying to do. Leading with honesty, once you have that rapport and you have that history, you can start to break down barriers,” Valdez said. “Growing up, I so badly wanted to see people who looked like me be heroes in their own stories and have agency and not always be waiting for that savior from outside to come in, because I lived it. Change can come from within and the paths that we forge can come from us. And so I knew that that was a truth. And it’s not always a truth that is shown on film.”
One of the ways that Valdez wanted to prove to the Saints coaches and families that he would honor their privacy and their stories was to encourage them to watch his past work. That includes his Emmy-winning film “The Sentence,” which documents the experiences of Valdez’s family members as they grapple with the immediate and secondary effects of the American criminal justice system.
“I always have in the back of my head the experience that I had filming my family. I will never ask anyone to do anything, and I will never do anything, that I wouldn’t do to my own family,” Valdez said. “When this is over, I want them to be able to watch this and be proud and feel like it’s an honest depiction of them. That’s of the utmost importance to me. That’s in the back of my mind at all times on every project. Especially with one like this, where we’re dealing with kids and people who are putting so much time and effort into into their time with kids. They deserve that respect and they deserve that honesty.”
“We Are the Brooklyn Saints” manages to show how the possibility of winning a championship means a lot to these kids, regardless of what level they’re at. Yet, at the same time, the idea that the show is rooted in so much more beyond the sport means that the show can do both at the same time.
“As a father of two young kids, I see a real flaw in myself that I want to protect my kids from ever failing at anything. And I know that it’s wrong. I know that failure is a huge part of life and that losing is a huge part of life, and we learn so much from it. But it doesn’t stop me from trying to shield them from that,” Valdez said. “The Saints get beat up. They lose and they lose big sometimes. And I’ll never forget these coaches and parents talking to them after the game and saying, ‘You get up. You fight again. On Monday, we’re coming back here and we’re gonna practice because next week, we get another chance.’ Those are lessons that are invaluable to anyone to learn. It was just so wonderful to see these coaches telling these kids, ‘You can do anything that you want in life, you can do anything you want in that field.’ They watch these kids fall and they say, “Get up. Next week, we’re gonna try again.’ It was magical to see that.”
“We Are the Brooklyn Saints” is now available to stream on Netflix.