“Above The Rim” connects hoops, the streets, and the pursuit of a better life by any means necessary.
The 90s Black film renaissance produced some of the greatest movies about the African American experience ever. Filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton, gave Black people a voice, tackling social issues including the 90s drug epidemic, gang culture, inner-city racial oppression, all while being entertaining and profitable.
These movies worked in conjunction with a changing sports landscape and the rise of hip-hop invading the mainstream. Today is the 25th anniversary of “Above the Rim, ” one of the first official hoops flicks of that era. The success of “Above The Rim” sparked a series of 90s films based on basketball and the Black experience.
A drama directed by Jeff Pollack, the source material from “Above The Rim” was taken from a story by Pollack and Benny Medina. The cast featured several up and coming black actors including Duane Martin, Wood Harris, Marlon Wayans, and the late Bernie Mac and Tupac Shakur.
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“Above the Rim” showed how NY streetball, money schemes, and the struggle to survive in the inner-city’s concrete jungle are all interconnected. The plot revolved around the familiar themes good vs. evil and with strong acting and authentic storytelling, “Above The Rim” showed a black experience packaged in a mainstream lens.
Kyle Lee Wilson (Duane Martin), is a high school basketball phenom who has hopes of being recruited by Georgetown. Shot largely at East Harlem’s Manhattan Center High School and Brooklyn’s Samuel J. Tilden High School, these locations gave “Above The Rim” instant credibility that New Yorkers would co-sign.
As the film develops, a struggle ensues over who will control Kyle’s lucrative future. It’s a familiar situation that blue-chip recruits from underserved areas experience today. The predatorial agents, the streets, and temptation are pitted against those who truly love and want the best for you.
Through his best friend Boogaloo (Marlon Wayans), Kyle’s introduced to Birdie (Tupac Shakur), the ruthless drug dealer who rocked a smirk on his face and a banger in his mouth. Birdie sees an opportunity and tries to recruit Kyle into his high-stakes, drug-hustling streetball team, using money and women as bait.
Mailika (Tonya Pinkins), Kyle’s mother, and Birdie’s brother Shep (Leon), a former high school basketball star turned security guard, try to lead Kyle away from Birdie’s road to destruction.
90s movies often used extreme violence to sensationalize storytelling but “Above The Rim” had underlying messages about hope and choices. In Kyle’s case, basketball was that hope and he had to grow up and choose his path…or risk becoming just another statistic. “Above The Rim” may have been the standard but here are a few of the more dynamic hoop movies of the 90s.
“Blue Chips” dropped a month before “Above The Rim” and was one of the first movies to expose the depths of corruption in the NCAA’s broken system that still exist to this today. A young Shaq and Penny Hardaway made their acting debuts and Nick Nolte played the crooked coach who looked the other way as boosters purchased him the best team money can buy.
The HBO film about the Harlem streetballer told a tale of lost dreams snatched by drugs. Played by a young Don Cheadle, Manigault’s story was all too common for Black families impacted by heroin.
Futuring NBA Champ Ray Allen and Academy Award-winning Denzel Washington teamed up to make the Spike Lee-directed sports drama, “He Got Game”, a cult classic. As Jake Shuttlesworth, Denzel played a prison inmate who has a chance to reduce his sentence by connecting with his 23-year-old, top-ranked basketball prospect son, Jesus Shuttlesworth.
Though not considered a Black hoops film, “The Basketball Diaries”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio gave a look into the prep school side of sports and how privileged kids deal with the pressure of making it to the next level.