Few team sports twine so intrinsically with the arts as does basketball with hip hop. From the playgrounds of inner-city America to the corporate arenas of the NBA, rap lends basketball an attitude, aesthetic and soundtrack; and basketball has arguably become a fifth pillar of hip-hop culture, alongside MCing, DJing, graffiti and breakdance.
This relationship informs From Deep, the first feature-length documentary by Regina-born, Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Brett Kashmere, enjoying its Canadian premiere at this year's Images Festival in Toronto. Over three chapters (The Hoop Moves, The Funky Dialectic, Crossed Over), the film traces basketball's evolution from ground-bound fundamentals to high-flying spectacle, alongside hip hop's popular ascendancy.
Together, each of these complementary histories not only feels essential to understanding the others; they also provide insights into the legacies of race, economics, competition, populism and entertainment that define contemporary America. From Deep braids its two threads cleverly, and the resulting insights extend far beyond pop culture into the realm of sociology. Splicing hand-held shots of pickup games with clips from Hollywood movies, rap videos and archival footage, the film is also hugely enjoyable, a testament to Kashmere's obvious passion for both subjects.
"Growing up," he said during an interview last week, "I never thought about hip hop and basketball as being separate. They were part of the same culture, and Michael Jordan and Spike Lee were seemingly in the middle of everything."
From Deep, which Kashmere classifies as being somewhere "between essay and mix tape," incorporates two corresponding streams of voiceover narration – the filmmaker's personal ruminations; and passages from Hoop Roots: Basketball, Race, and Love, the 2001 memoir by John Edgar Wideman – which offer divergent interpretations of the images onscreen.
"Hoop Roots represents the voice of authority, of firsthand knowledge, of expertise," says the 36-year-old Kashmere, who grew up in the community of White City, Sask., "while my own writing and research is more tentative, even self-questioning at times. I'm white and Canadian, and I'm documenting and speaking about a game that is now primarily black, American, urban." Yet, he admits that this definition feels reductive, reinforcing "a black-white racial dichotomy played up in popular narratives," which his film examines and discredits.
In the early 1980s, hip hop began to spread from sound-system parties in the South Bronx, first through the five boroughs of New York, and then across the Hudson River and beyond. This coincided with a shift in the dynamics of professional basketball, the NBA having recently merged with its flashier, streetwise cousin, the American Basketball Association. The sport became a forum for style, embodied in the jaw-dropping exploits of Julius Erving. And as DJs Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa paved the way for the chart-topping success of RUN-DMC, so too did Dr. J's aerial acrobatics presage the sport's first truly global superstar, Michael Jordan.
From Deep pinpoints 1984 as the year that everything changed. "During this period," Kashmere says, in his narration of the film, the NBA "continued its transition to an urban aesthetic as its players were elevating to the level of mainstream entertainers, able to cross over racial barriers." That year saw the NBA hold its first slam-dunk competition – an official sanctioning of a shot once banned from the sport – as well as Kurtis Blow's single Basketball; and the advent of Def Jam Records, which would host breakout acts LL Cool J, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys. It was also the year Jordan was drafted by the Chicago Bulls.
Kashmere casts Jordan not only as a pivotal figure in how basketball is played and talked about, but as something of a cultural paradigm. Jordan, "a young rebel intent on getting money and dominating the game" possessed a marketable swagger that heralded an era in which "individual players became brands unto themselves." Anyone familiar with the current state of pop music will recognize these traits from rap moguls Jay Z and Kanye West. Yet Jordan remains the standard for brand resilience: Almost 30 years after the original Air Jordan sneakers hit the market, they remain a fashion staple among hip-hop heads and gym rats alike.
From the late 1980s onward, as rap launched from urban subculture into the mainstream, basketball, led by a new crop of players raised on the beats and rhymes of EPMD and N.W.A., adopted a similar place in American society. Leading the charge were five freshmen at the University of Michigan. "A cultural force, more akin to music stars than student athletes," as Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Co. are described in From Deep, "the Fab 5 started a hip-hop style trend within basketball."
That trend is most indebted to the streets, where rap was born (literally: Kool Herc would drive his mobile sound system from one party to another) and basketball is played in its most expressive form. Driveways, schoolyards and playgrounds provide stages for ballers to show out, perhaps best embodied in the streetball inspired And1 Mixtape Tour, whose videos feel as much like freestyle ciphers and breakdance competitions as they do compendiums of hoops highlights.
And it's on the playground that From Deep really shines. Unlike Hollywood's attempts at portraying basketball, which tend to feel voyeuristic and staged, the film acutely captures the rhythms of the pickup game. Kashmere's goal was to give a sense of "the distinctive nature of each neighbourhood court, the social environments, the different mixtures of people, to demonstrate a glimpse of the amazing diversity and variety of how and where the game is played." While plenty can be said about the current state of American politics, From Deep suggests at least one place where democracy perseveres in its most idealistic form: on the playground, and in the streets.
From Deep has its Canadian premiere April 19 at 9 p.m. at the Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall. The Images Festival runs April 10 to 19.