Obama’s foreign policy comes alive — really! — in ‘The Final Year’ and a venture outside the festival zone Day 3 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — So far, my schedule at the Toronto International Film Festival has been heavy on documentaries, including ones on Grace Jones, André Leon Talley and Vince Carter.

I spent Saturday morning enmeshed in the brains of a bunch of foreign policy wonks while watching The Final Year from director Greg Barker. The film follows former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, former national security adviser Susan Rice, former foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes and former Secretary of State John Kerry as they try to implement President Barack Obama’s foreign policy goals in his final year as president.

The premise sounds about as dry as it gets. But The Final Year turned out to be an interesting film, and not just because of what was happening on the screen. TIFF really is an international festival: I’ve had conversations with journalists from Russia and a Ugandan-born Brit, and it’s not unusual to hear people speaking multiple languages. So it’s also an opportunity to hear what other people are thinking of Americans right now. And that definitely came through in the screening for The Final Year. Barker introduces the Obama administration’s foreign policy team with a stylized presentation that makes them seem like the world’s nerdiest Justice League. When President Obama appeared on the screen the audience here clapped, and at the end they did it again. This never happens at press and industry screenings, as they’re called, where journalists typically refrain from any visible reaction to the films they’re watching. Politics and the 2016 election are clearly still on people’s minds. Even The Gospel According to André opened and closed with scenes from the 2016 campaign and election aftermath.

Barker ends on a hopeful note, echoing the tone that Obama always tried to take. Rhodes, who was speechless after the 2016 presidential election, has had time to collect himself. And he falls back on all the soft power diplomacy that Obama conducted, recalling all the bright, young people Obama met who will, decades later, likely become leaders of their respective countries. Rhodes seems to be trying to reassure us, and himself.

“I think the pendulum will swing back, and I think we have the template for when that happens,” he says.

Barker cuts to Power. “We’re in this for the long haul,” she says.

At the end of the film, there was quite a bit of sniffling. Tony Gittens, the director of Filmfest DC, reached across a chair in the dark and took my hand. The Final Year had triggered a state of mournfulness, and the two of us walked down the stairs and out of the theater, hand in hand.

Neighborhood hopping

Film festival life can be harried. You’re hopping from event to event for roughly 12 hours a day, which means you’re mostly confined to the neighborhood where the festival is taking place. The pace has its benefits — the single pair of pants I brought are now too big. Mostly, you’re running on coffee and grabbing a bite when you can remember to do it.

TIFF is based in Toronto’s entertainment district, which is filled with restaurants, theaters and sports arenas. It’s home to Ripley’s Aquarium and the CN Tower, the most recognizable building in the Toronto skyline. There’s a distinct mix of people, including Blue Jays fans; locals who are annoyed because their daily routine has been upended by street closures; and festival attendees, who are easy to pick out because most of us are wearing branded lanyards or bags. There are artsy types with blue or pink hair, lots of oxford shoes and tons of motorcycle jackets.

Celebrities such as Grace Jones, Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie show up to promote their films, but they stay hidden away until it’s time to go to work. But I did run into Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me, on the sidewalk today. He’s here to present his sequel, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!

On Friday evening, I decided to venture away from the entertainment district to the neighborhood of Harbord Village. Anyhow, I moseyed — OK, taxied — there on a feminist pilgrimage of sorts to Good For Her, a toy shop that has sponsored Tristan Taormino’s Feminist Porn Conference, which also takes place in Toronto. Harbord Village is an eclectic, charming ’hood that reminds me of Little Five Points in Atlanta, filled with little shops, restaurants and yoga studios.

On my way back, I walked through Chinatown, which was comparatively younger and browner. I was surprised to spot a Popeyes chicken place, along with marijuana dispensaries (cash only) and an array of tattoo and piercing salons, which, rather strangely, closed at 8 p.m. Fine. No septum ring for me this trip.

Grace Jones, Andre Leon Talley and a chance to see people of color in all your movies Day 2 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — For a person of color, looking for yourself in major box office releases can feel like a frustrating series of one-offs, each with impossibly high stakes. Film festivals can offer a different experience, especially since there’s no box office pressure at them.

One of my favorite things about film festivals is the way they create a temporary, friendly, idealistic, artistic bubble. The audiences, Blackstar and other minority-centered fests notwithstanding, can be overwhelmingly white, and their reactions can offer a skewed perception of films. (See Dope and The Birth of a Nation, both of which were Sundance darlings that didn’t live up to box office expectations. Crown Heights found itself in a similar position.)

But festivals also offer a great opportunity for people to see film after film starring or about people of color. The first time I went to Sundance, I was astonished to see multiple feature films by or about Native Americans. This year, Columbus and Gook, both from Asian directors, made big splashes at Sundance.

So on Friday morning, a day after seeing Mudbound and The Carter Effect, I found myself immersed in the world of fashionable, brilliant black people with screenings of two documentaries: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami and The Gospel According to André.

The similarities in these two people seem obvious at first glance. Jones is 69 and Andre Leon Talley is 67, and they’ve both established careers in fashion by being intriguing, unique individuals who are impossible to ignore.

But something deeper and more soul-stirring connects these two individuals to many black people of their generation. Jones and Talley both soared to tremendous heights, Jones as a model and singer and Talley as a Vogue editor and arbiter of taste in the fashion world. As they’ve reached the top, they’ve taken the pain of their earlier lives with them. Sometimes it’s creative fuel, but in one way or another, everyone has to wrestle with the demons of their younger selves.

For Jones, it was the cruelty of the man who raised her, simply referred to as Mas P, who terrorized Jones and her siblings with beatings and offered scant gestures of love. Jones became notorious for her temper after she slapped television host Russell Harty live on the air in November 1980.

Jones is up front about her penchant for striking people. “I always warn them first,” she says.

In Bloodlight, directed by Sophie Fiennes, Jones says that she struggled to channel her anger as an adult. Rather than talk to a therapist, Jones worked through her anger in one-on-one acting classes and revealed that her acting coach would have to hypnotize her to draw her out of her uncontrolled fury.

Fiennes captures footage of Jones visiting family and friends in her native Jamaica, and it feels like the audience discovered a decoder ring for the woman behind images such as the Jean-Paul Goude photograph that graced the cover of Island Life.

Jones tells her origin story through her song lyrics. She bounces all over the globe, code-switching from Jamaican patois to accented English to perfect French. But everything comes back to Jamaica. Frankly, Bloodlight and Bami is an unstructured mess, but it does a fair job of contextualizing Jones’ art through her Jamaican roots. The things and the place that are a source of so much of her anger still fill her with joy, love and artistic inspiration. She’s not just a curiosity — everything she does, everything she wears, including her extravagant performance headdresses, has a purpose and an origin. We see Jones bring her mother a hat that’s a variation on one she wears onstage. On Jones, coupled with a black velvet leotard, makeup and 6-inch heels, the hat is an avant-garde statement. On her mother, offset with flowers and a church dress, it’s a crown fit for sharing a rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

Bloodlight and Bami does not yet have a distributor, though I suspect it will find one, if the masses lined up for a glimpse of Jones at the Thursday night premiere of the film are any indication.

The Gospel According to André

As black people, Jones and Talley came of age at a time that allowed them to take advantage of the tremendous changes taking place in the world. The documentaries about them aren’t just about the costs of being trailblazers. They’re more personal than that. Instead, they’re about the traumas people carry with them, and the way they infect and influence those around them.

André Leon Talley

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

With Talley especially, it became apparent just how much his blackness was a part of that trauma, and how much he’s held it in service to a bigger vision. As a Vogue staffer responsible for assembling and conceiving fashion editorials, Talley had the rare power to make something like Scarlett in the Hood happen. Scarlett in the Hood was a magazine spread that offered Talley’s commentary on Gone with the Wind. Talley selected Naomi Campbell to play Scarlett O’Hara, and he placed white designers around her dressed and cast as slaves. The price for being in a position to do that, however, was that Talley had to keep mum about the microaggressions directed at him by the industry he loved.

The hurt Talley carries from having stones thrown at him by white boys when he would visit Duke University’s east campus as a teen, simply to buy the latest issue of Vogue, is the same hurt he carries from colleagues in the fashion industry accusing him of sleeping with every designer in Paris and playing the role of black buck for curious whites. Talley tears up at one point, recalling a colleague he was too much of a class act to name, who cruelly referred to him as “Queen Kong.”

Over and over, fashion industry figures such as Marc Jacobs, Valentino and Tom Ford remarked to director Kate Novack about Talley’s “childlike” qualities. The takeaway from all of them was that the intangible that makes Talley such a talented curator stems directly from the same wonderment he felt as a teen flipping through the pages of Vogue. Somehow, even as an adult, he kept it. For Talley, who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and attended the segregated Hillside High School, Vogue offered an escape from that reality. His talent and his hurt are inextricably linked.

‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ is a tale of fame, money and selfish enablers Documentary about Whitney Houston is also a romantic tragedy

Whitney: Can I Be Me, the new documentary about the beloved singer who drowned in her bathtub at the Beverly Hilton after overdosing on drugs, is full of little moments that squeeze at your heart. There’s footage of Whitney Houston ecstatic after giving her all during a performance of “I Will Always Love You” and early interviews in which Houston is still earnest, bashful and innocent.

Then there’s the whammy.

In 1995, David Roberts, who served as Houston’s bodyguard for seven years and was the inspiration for her hit film with Kevin Costner, sent Houston’s family and business partners a report on her health and well-being from her latest tour. It was not good. Houston, Roberts said, was heavily dependent on cocaine and marijuana. Her voice was deteriorating. She was not in good health and needed to enter a rehabilitation facility.

They ignored him.

“If anyone had listened to or acted on my report, she would now be alive,” Roberts says in the film.

Under the direction of Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, Whitney: Can I Be Me functions as a psychological autopsy for the woman known simply as The Voice. The documentary airs Friday at 9 p.m. EST on Showtime.

An opening voice-over proclaims that Houston didn’t really die from a drug overdose. “She actually died from a broken heart.” Houston had been divorced from Bobby Brown for five years when she died on the eve of the 2012 Grammys at age 48. This wasn’t the broken heart resulting from a soured romance, but one stemming from living most of her life with split identities. The Whitney Houston whom America fell in love with was not the real Whitney Houston, Broomfield and Dolezal argue.

“If anyone had listened to or acted on my report, she would now be alive.” — David Roberts, Houston’s bodyguard

For Houston to rise to pop stardom in the 1980s the way no other black woman before her had done, there were rules:

Don’t be ’hood.

Don’t be too black.

And certainly don’t be queer.

And Houston, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, before her family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, after the 1967 riots, was all of those things. So it was up to Arista Records superproducer Clive Davis to erase them. Davis had wanted to turn Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick into crossover stars, but they were too established in their careers for such a pivot to work. Then, “along comes Whitney, who was so moldable, and she was the perfect vehicle for his foolproof vision,” former Arista executive Kenneth Reynolds says in the film.

And so Houston’s sound was pop instead of R&B or funk.

“Whitney’s voice broke barriers,” Pattie Howard, a backup singer who sang bass for Houston, explains in the film. “We didn’t have Beyoncés. And any African-American female artist that can now be at the top of a pop chart — that absolutely was not going to happen before Whitney Houston. It had not happened before Whitney Houston. She changed history for us. And she paid a price for it.”

Whitney confirms much that had previously been rumored: that Houston began doing drugs as a teenager and that her brothers would procure them for her — and that she was, in fact, bisexual. When rumors about her longtime relationship with her friend, lover and employee Robyn Crawford began to surface, she breezily blew off Katie Couric in a televised interview. Couric had prodded, in the most polite way possible, about the fact that Crawford presented herself as a butch lesbian. Houston, smiling all the while, responded by saying Crawford was simply a very “tall,” very “broad” woman who played basketball better than a lot of men.

“Whitney’s voice broke barriers. We didn’t have Beyoncés.” — Pattie Howard, one of Houston’s backup singers

For years, Brown was blamed for turning Houston into an addict, but that wasn’t the case. These revelations may not come as a surprise to consummate Whitney Watchers. But for casual fans, the documentary provides credible sourcing on what Houston’s family tried so desperately to conceal. Houston’s estate sued Dolezal to try to stop the release of the film and lost.

Whitney doesn’t exonerate Brown from responsibility. He didn’t introduce her to drugs, but he also wasn’t a fan of her plan to get clean. He was jealous and abusive, and he and Crawford were constantly in competition for Houston’s affections, to the point where they came to blows.

Whitney follows the typical conventions of a music documentary, like those Andy Samberg so expertly parodied in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. The never-before-seen concert footage was shot by Dolezal after Houston commissioned him to do a tour documentary. It’s interspersed with talking heads from various parts of Houston’s life.

The difference, of course, is that this documentary is deathly serious. It’s about how Houston went from being one of the most celebrated voices of a generation to a woman whose backing band had to lower her own songs two registers because her voice had deteriorated so much.

Those who were shaken by the revelations Amy produced about the life, demise and death of Amy Winehouse will feel similar sensations watching Whitney. They both tell stories of clever, charming, talented women surrounded by enablers, not all of whom were invested simply in their well-being. In both cases, those enablers included their parents.

In a way, this film is an argument for minority artists to have more control over their careers. The record company apparatus is still necessary for many artists, but it needs to adapt to fit the needs of talent instead of making the talent adapt to its moneymaking ambitions. In the long run, that’s better for both parties.

Whitney lets us know: The demand for sanitized, postracial soothsaying from black stars as the price for success is more than detrimental. It will slowly, softly kill you.

‘Whose Streets?’ pushes back on what we think we know about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri New documentary is a potent combination of social and media criticism

Deep into Whose Streets?, the new documentary about Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, there’s footage of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Brown, giving an interview to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” Wilson tells him. At the screening I attended, there was an audible mix of gasps and laughter from the audience.

Directors Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis spent much of the film’s run time up to that point establishing just how much racism lurked within the Ferguson Police Department and the city government. A 2015 report from the Justice Department established that Ferguson provided about as clear an illustration of institutionalized racism as could possibly exist: The city not only targeted black residents for tickets and arrests they couldn’t afford, it was also using the revenue from such stops to fund the nearly all-white police force. The court clerk, police captain and police sergeant were all implicated in sending and receiving racist emails, including one that compared President Barack Obama to a monkey.

Protester Brittany Ferrell hoists a bullhorn as her daughter hugs her in a scene from ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

And yet here was Wilson telling a national television audience that racism was anathema to policing.

Whose Streets? arrives in theaters Aug. 11, marking the third anniversary of Brown’s death (Aug. 9, 2014) and the uprisings that followed it. It’s a deeply moving work, and the passion of both the filmmakers and their subjects is palpable. “FYI I was literally homeless throughout the first year of production. Worked as a canvasser and put money back into the film,” Folayan, an activist, theater geek and former advocate for prisoners at Rikers Island, tweeted recently. Davis is an interdisciplinary artist whose work is currently featured in the permanent collection at the Blacksonian (aka, the National Museum of African American History and Culture).

The focus of Whose Streets? is the residents of Ferguson and St. Louis who keep marching and screaming for justice till they’re hoarse, who keep agitating long after the national media has turned its attention elsewhere. It establishes the movement for black lives in Ferguson as one driven by young people such as rapper Tef Poe, who are fed up with being targeted by police, and others like organizer Brittany Ferrell and her partner, Alexis Templeton, as well as Copwatch recruiter David Whitt, who want better for their children.

Whose Streets? is likely to serve as a counterweight to Detroit, the new Kathryn Bigelow film about the 1967 Detroit riots and the police murder of three unarmed black people at the Algiers Hotel. It’s not necessarily fair to compare narrative films like Detroit to documentaries, but there’s a similarity in the dynamic between the two that existed with Nina and What Happened, Miss Simone? Both Whose Streets? and What Happened, Miss Simone? end up correcting, or at least augmenting, the record of ahistorical narrative films that struggle with details in which race is central.

Nina made the mistake of casting Zoe Saldana as Simone, then putting her in makeup to darken her skin and prosthetics to make her facial features more closely resemble Simone’s. Detroit fails to imbue its characters with any depth or humanity and devolves into a slog of racist white police officers terrorizing a group of people in the Algiers.

Bigelow’s herky-jerky camerawork and editing in Detroit deliberately create a sense of chaos. Whose Streets?, by contrast, presents real footage of Ferguson buildings in flames after Brown’s death, but the overall effect is far more nuanced. It’s much easier to get a sense of what happened in Ferguson as pockets of violence and property damage pockmarked peaceful, if emotional, protests. Whose Streets? refuses to equate property damage with the loss of human life.

Folayan and Davis offer a potent work of media criticism too. Folayan and Davis communicate just how much cable news, by repeatedly and selectively broadcasting the most violent, hectic footage, was responsible for making Ferguson seem like a war zone whose residents were animalistic and out of control. That narrative was furthered by a distant, largely white media corps accepting police reports as gospel. Whose Streets? challenges that by juxtaposing footage of Ferrell and her cohorts protesting to shut down a highway in Missouri with the official police account of what happened, in which the arresting officer accused Ferrell of yelling out “tribal chants.”

For a moment, we also see what it means to send black journalists into a situation like Ferguson, where police in tanks and armored vehicles are shooting rubber bullets, smoke grenades and tear gas (a chemical agent that the Geneva Convention prohibits in warfare) at the city’s black residents. There’s a clip of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Ernie Suggs walking through Ferguson at night with his hands above his head as police bark orders at black protesters. The police draw no distinction. He’s black, so he might as well be one of them.

Brittany Ferrell leads a line of protesters as they face off with police in ‘Whose Streets?’

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The film gives voice to a community that’s reeling, mournful and frustrated. It has little faith in a government that’s failed it repeatedly. Spliced with footage of white public officials delivering statements that are often canned and worded to avoid legal liability, Whose Streets? brings the idea of two Americas, and two wholly different realities, to life. “Question normal,” it demands of its audience.

Despite the gravity of its subject matter, Whose Streets? has moments of dark levity. One interview follows a clip of President Obama giving a statement about Brown in his trademark style of measured reason.

“I’m waiting on me to have a black president. I still ain’t had me one,” a Ferguson resident named Tory says. “Wasn’t he a constitutional professor? Ain’t no constitution in Ferguson. Tell that n—- he need to teach a new class or bring his a– to Ferguson … and figure out why we ain’t got no constitution.”

Whose Streets? is understandably close in spirit to The Hate U Give, the best-selling young adult novel by Angie Thomas published earlier this year. The Hate U Give is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who is the sole witness as her unarmed best friend is shot and killed by a white police officer. The book, which is heavily influenced by Ferguson, is slated for a film adaptation starring Amandla Stenberg, Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby and Lamar Johnson. It’s early days yet, but I suspect that the film version of The Hate U Give and Whose Streets? will serve as cinematic bookends to understanding what black people went through in Ferguson before and after Brown’s death.

The documentary ends on a hopeful note, but no one in Whose Streets? is a Pollyanna, least of all Ferrell. She’s open about the fact that she’s taking prescription medication to treat anxiety and says she’s not sure the justice she and her partner are seeking will come in their lifetimes. They’re counting on another generation of troublemakers and revolutionaries to carry on. They’re raising one in their elementary-school-aged daughter McKenzie, seen in the film with her mothers leading a crowd and screaming as loud as she can, “WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT OUR CHAINS!”

What if it wasn’t all a Dream (Team)? Five 1992 Olympic what-if scenarios — 25 years later Dominique Wilkins’ injury, Jordan sticking to his word and Shaq over Laettner. What if?

Want to feel nostalgic? Great. Better yet, want to feel old? Twenty-five years ago today, the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team won Olympic gold. Canonized as “The Dream Team,” the squad curb-stomped an entire world of competition, and its international impact is eternal.

The Dream Team opened the NBA’s door into China — and the world’s love affair with the game of basketball. Their Olympic tuneups weren’t as much games as they were red carpet ceremonies as they laughed, galloped and, in Toni Kukoc’s case, smothered the life out of opponents, beating them by 44.3 points per game — second only to the 53.2-point margin of the 1956 squad anchored by Bill Russell. The Dream Team’s song is one to which the entire world knows the lyrics — thanks to the documentaries, features and books in the quarter-century since their summer excursion. But even a crew with some of the game’s most iconic names — Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — isn’t immune to the “what if” game. It makes for a psychedelic voyage into a parallel universe.

What if Team USA had taken gold in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea?

This is, by far, the most important question involving The Dream Team. America winning bronze in the ’88 Games was a watershed moment. The Soviet Union defeated the United States 82-76 in the semifinals (there’s a Russia/America-beating-us-at-our-own-game joke that will not be told right now). Up until 1988, only collegiate players were allowed in Olympic play. That talk soon shifted. “Personally, I would like more of a chance to compete,” Team USA and then-Georgetown head coach John Thompson said. “I’m also an advocate of professionals playing in the Olympics.”

Not everyone was for the change. Bill Wall, executive director of the United States Amateur Basketball Association, touched on philosophical issues: “Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes. In Munich, on April 7, 1989, FIBA voted 56-13 to allow pro players to participate.

Many, like Boris Stankovic, FIBA’s secretary general, saw it as Olympic basketball’s “triumphant entry into the 21st century.” Stankovic was a chief proponent of allowing NBA players access, as they were the only professionals barred worldwide. One of its most vocal critics, however, turned out to be the United States Amateur Basketball Association, which took the stance that pro players’ involvement eliminated its opportunity to participate.

So, did America’s bronze medal showing in the ’88 Games lead directly to the introduction of NBA players? Perhaps not 100 percent, but it undeniably aided a process already in motion. Put it this way: If anything defines Big Sean’s Last night I took an L, but tonight I bounce back, it’s Team USA basketball 1988-92. It’s also fair to say that if America had won gold in 1988, the push for NBA stars may never have happened.

NBA players in the Olympics are the norm these days, but in the immediate aftermath of the decision, the desire to play was slightly better than 50-50. Superstars such as Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Karl Malone didn’t hide their excitement. “[I’d] go in a heartbeat and pay my own ticket,” Malone said. But a 1989 poll revealed only 58 percent of NBA players would play if afforded the opportunity. The biggest one to say no? Jordan. Which brings us to the next point …

What if Michael Jordan had stuck to his word and not played in the 1992 Olympics?

Let’s get the elephant out of the room. The Isiah Thomas/Jordan factor was a real issue — a beef with origins in the 1985 All-Star Game, known in hoops circles as the “freeze-out game.” How do we know Jordan didn’t want anything to do with Thomas as a teammate? He said it himself. “That was one of the stipulations put to me [on the team] — that Isiah wasn’t part of the team,” he said in a 2012 Dream Team documentary. The Thomas exclusion remains a thrilling subplot of ’90s basketball because of how the selection committee did whatever it had to do to get Jordan while sacrificing Thomas.

The Detroit Pistons’ floor general wasn’t one of the first 10 players selected. The Olympic selection committee began choosing players shortly after the 1991 playoffs ended. It was in those same playoffs that the Pistons, swept by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals, infamously walked off the court before time expired in Game 4. Thomas was seen as the linchpin in one of the most infamous examples of pettiness in sports history. But even with Thomas on the outside looking in, Jordan still wasn’t a lock. Peep the timeline:

April 1989 Jordan says he’s not interested in playing in the Olympics again (he won gold in 1984). The thought of giving up another summer didn’t appeal to him.

May 1991 In one of the more revealing yet often forgotten interviews of his career, the ’91 MVP once again states his hesitation to Pat Riley. The season was long enough, and adding the Olympics would only shorten recovery time. But he doesn’t slam the casket shut either. “The only reason that I would wanna go is,” he says, only semi-joking, “if we feel that we certainly can’t win with the team we put out there.”

“Do you want to watch the best players beat everyone else?” It turns out the answer was a resounding yes.

July 30, 1991 — Agent David Falk denies that both of his clients, Jordan and Patrick Ewing, are undecided about what to do the next summer.

Aug. 1, 1991 — Playing in his first competitive golf tournament at the Western Amateur in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jordan seemingly deadens any hope of Olympic dreams. “There are a lot of professionals who want to play and, being that there are a lot of professionals that haven’t played — and I’ve played — I don’t mind giving the other guys an opportunity,” he says. “Right now it’s a closed door for me.” For the golf aficionados wondering, he shot an 85 that day.

Aug. 10, 1991 — “I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson says. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it. But so far he hasn’t changed his mind.”

Aug. 25, 1991 — Few remember the attacks on Jordan’s patriotism because of his reluctance to play in the Olympics. Three weeks after his statement about sitting out, Jordan reconsiders, promising to make the decision in a few days but saying it would be his and his alone. “Not one forced on me by what somebody else says or wants,” he said.

Sept. 4, 1991 — Thomas says if he’s not invited to the ’92 Games later that month he will not blame Jordan. “While I cannot speak for Michael,” Thomas says, “I can say that such a feud does not exist.”

Sept. 24, 1991 — The selection committee releases the names of 10 players invited to form the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team: Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Ewing, Johnson, Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, John Stockton and, yes, Jordan. Jack McCloskey resigned from the selection committee over Thomas’ snub, calling the omission “ridiculous.” As for Jordan’s response? “If I had anything to do with the selection, I would’ve selected my mother and my sister. I didn’t have anything to do with it.” Riiiight.

March 18, 1992 — By now, Jordan is openly stating he wants to play. But not until the money ceases looking funny. Jordan’s camp was unhappy about marketing rights — in particular, the official Olympic T-shirt that bore semblances of all team members. He had no issue with USA Basketball, a nonprofit organization, making money. He did, however, have beef with the NBA making coin. It was a subtle but undeniable example of what The New York Times at the time called a “deteriorating relationship with the NBA over the issue.” Jordan was adamant that money wasn’t the motivation for holding out. However, “This is a business,” he says. “This is what happens when you let professional players in.”

March 20, 1992 — Turns out that headache lasts only 48 hours. Jordan’s agent, David Falk, confirms that a compromise will be reached, and Jordan will be in Barcelona, Spain, that summer. USA Basketball had secured the face it so desperately coveted. Without Jordan, Team USA likely still wins gold. But it begs the question, is the NBA the global international force it is now if Jordan stayed stateside in the summer of 1992?

What if Shaquille O’Neal had been chosen over Christian Laettner as the Dream Team’s college player?

Love him or hate him — and many did both — Laettner’s star power was undeniable heading into the Summer Games. His resume at Duke was drunk with achievement: back-to-back national championships in ’91 and ’92, a three-time All-American, Final Four MVP and National Player of the Year in ’92. Combine all that with one of the most iconic plays in college basketball history, and Laettner’s stock was sky-high. Surrounded by elite talent that trumped his, it’s beyond understandable why he barely got much tick in the ’92 Games. That said, if you ever want to win a bar bet, ask who averaged the fewest points on the Dream Team. Chances are most will say Laettner (4.8), who went on to have a solid NBA career, averaging 12.8 points and 6.7 rebounds over 13 seasons. The correct answer, though, is Stockton (2.8), as the future Hall of Famer missed the first four games with a broken leg.

“I’m working on him,” Magic Johnson said. “I even told him I’d give him a million dollars if he’d do it.”

But let’s keep it a buck. This is Shaq we’re talking about. In 1992, the feeling was post-up centers would have difficulties in the trapezoid-shaped lane of the international game. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s violent to envision what a 20-year-old O’Neal would have done to the likes of Angola or Germany. Seriously, picture this: Johnson leading the break, with Jordan and Pippen on the wings and a young, nimble 20-year-old O’Neal as the trailer:

It’s fun to imagine young O’Neal running fast breaks in Barcelona, because we already know how destructively poetic young O’Neal was running fast breaks in Orlando with Penny Hardaway. O’Neal would later receive his own gold medal at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, but the four-time NBA champion didn’t like his ’92 omission. “I was pissed off. I was jealous,” O’Neal said in 2012. “But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player. Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was.”

What if Dominique Wilkins never ruptured his Achilles?

The Original ATLien was one of the more entertaining and beloved players in the ’80s and into the ’90s. His 47 points in Game 7 in Boston Garden vs. Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1988 remains one of the all-time great playoff performances (despite being in a loss). He won two dunk contests, in 1985 and 1990. Even Jordan admits Wilkins was robbed in 1988 when he lost in Chicago. “I probably would’ve given it to [Dominique],” Jordan said years later. “But being that it was on my turf, it wasn’t meant to be.”

Wilkins is also one of five non-centers in NBA history to average at least 26 points for a decade — the other four being Jerry West, Jordan, Allen Iverson and LeBron James. In layman’s terms, Wilkins was that deal. The issue with Wilkins’ legacy, however, is what plagues Chris Paul today — his teams never advanced past the second round. But by the start of 1992, there seemed to be momentum building for Wilkins to become the 11th professional player to be added to the Dream Team. Unfortunately, Wilkins ruptured his Achilles tendon against the Philadelphia 76ers in January 1992, ending his season and whatever shot he had at making the Olympic squad. At the time of his injury, he was putting up 28.1 points per night.

How the story played out: Portland’s Clyde Drexler was announced as the final NBA player to make the squad in May 1992. Wilkins eventually played on the second iteration of the Dream Team two years later, a dominant squad in its own right. But we’re all left to wonder how differently Wilkins’ Hall of Fame career might have been remembered. What an acrobatic light show the fast break of Johnson, Jordan and “The Human Highlight Reel” would’ve produced in Barcelona! It’s the second time we missed out on a Magic and Dominique tag team — the Los Angeles Lakers had the chance to select Wilkins No. 1 overall in the 1982 draft, opting instead for James Worthy (a selection that worked out extremely well for the Lakers in the ’80s).

What if Magic Johnson had been unable to play?

For context, only 263 days had passed between Johnson’s announcement that he had HIV (Nov. 7, 1991) and Team USA’s first Olympic game (July 26, 1992). In the immediate aftermath of his announcement, America began to emotionally distance itself from Johnson. Advertisers and marketing agencies ceased using him in their campaigns. How sick was he? Would he wither away in front of our eyes? And should he even be allowed to play basketball? The debate became one of the most polarizing of its day.

“If Magic Johnson is prohibited from participating in the Olympics,” a New York Times response to the editor ran in February 1992, “then the accepted risk factor for all sports should be re-evaluated.”

“Americans have always regarded our Olympic athletes as role models for our boys and girls, which Magic is not,” another stated. “Let him use his energies and money setting up a trust fund of a few million dollars to pay the medical bills of the women he may have infected.”

On Feb. 3, 1992, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruled that athletes with HIV were eligible to participate. Later that same week, Johnson not only participated in the NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, Florida, but he also took home MVP honors with 25 points, nine assists and a spine-tingling 3-pointer that has since transcended sports. Johnson, of course, went on to become one of the faces of The Dream Team and a beloved executive, broadcaster and ambassador of the league.

But what if history were different, and the IOC had ruled differently? Not only would that have been tragically inhumane, but athletes with HIV being ruled ineligible means no Magic Johnson. No Magic Johnson means no Larry Bird and no Michael Jordan. No Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan means no Dream Team. One decision quite literally changed the world.

Are films like ‘Step’ inspiring or are they inner-city uplift porn? Maybe they’re both

After seeing Step, the new documentary about a step team at a girls charter school in Baltimore, two things happened:

  1. When I walked out of the darkened theater and into the light of day with the other people at the screening, everyone’s eyes were wet, including my own.
  2. I immediately wondered if what I’d seen was well-crafted inner-city uplift porn.

Step, the first feature-length documentary from director Amanda Lipitz, a Broadway producer whose credits include Legally Blonde the Musical, follows the journey of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW, pronounced “bliss”). Most of the girls in the film are seniors, and this is their last chance to win a competition in the midst of typical senior-year concerns, in particular, getting into college.

Their lives are set against a backdrop of hardship: poverty, hunger, the threat of police violence, and parents who aren’t or can’t be as involved as would be ideal. But thanks to their determination and hard work, and constant prodding from coach Gari McIntyre (known in the film as Coach G) and college counselor Paula Dofat, the girls not only persist, they all are accepted into college.

It reminded me of a scene from Primary Colors, the 1998 film based on Joe Klein’s roman à clef about the first Clinton presidential campaign.

In the scene, Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta) tells his wife, Susan (Emma Thompson), about an adult literacy program that he encountered on the campaign trail. The program’s home is in the library of a rundown, graffiti-covered, underfunded school in New York.

“Honey, this was so great today, this reading program,” the governor says. “You shoulda seen the people. And the teacher — well. She was just inspirational.”

“Give me a break,” Susan responds. “Tell me how good the curriculum was, not the teacher. We can replicate a good curriculum.”

The scene gets at the crux of the issue with films, both narrative and documentary, such as Step, Dope, Dangerous Minds, All the Difference, and Check It. Such stories rely on individuals, in this case, McIntyre, Dofat and the step team members, to get an audience to pay attention to issues that are far bigger in scope. In the scene from Primary Colors, failing public schools and social promotion created the need for such a literacy program in the first place. In Step, there are larger issues that created the problems the BLSYW girls face, among them housing discrimination, the racial wealth gap, the resegregation of public schools, and unjust allocation of public resources.

So what purpose does a film like Step serve? Lipitz, a graduate of the Park School of Baltimore, where yearly tuition can run as high as $29,620, was inspired by the success of a similar girls leadership school in Queens, New York, with a 100 percent graduation rate. Her mother founded BLSYW on Lipitz’s suggestion and chairs its board.

I asked Lipitz if she worried that the success McIntyre and Dofat were able to achieve would lull audiences into a false sense of security. It’s easy to believe that these women have found a way to solve these larger problems so that the rest of us don’t need to focus on them quite so much.

“I didn’t worry about that,” Lipitz said. “ ‘Cause I think they’re so inspiring that you’re like, ‘I want to go do what Coach G does.’ I feel like they inspire you to get up and move and do something about it. Mentor someone, take interest in someone. I think they inspire people to do that.”

She’s not wrong. There’s tremendous value in films that aim to uplift. That’s what made the Stantons such an effective team: Theirs was a marriage of both pragmatism and inspiration. But it’s a challenge to find films that accomplish both, and frankly, films that skew more toward policy usually end up on public television, not the big screen. Because it’s so hard to make compelling films about policy — Ava DuVernay’s 13th is a notable exception — we end up with a glut of films that are high on uplift and short on the nitty-gritty.

Step doesn’t ignore these larger social issues — McIntyre mentions that she lives on the same street where Freddie Gray was killed. But there’s an underlying message that personal responsibility, hard work, and school personnel so dedicated they qualify for beatification are enough to circumvent the consequences of being born poor, black, and female in a country that’s systematically hostile to people who are poor, black, and female.

In Jack Stanton’s story, it’s the inspiring teacher who’s the savior. Susan Stanton gets at something more practical and less sexy: You can’t scale an inspirational teacher. You need a curriculum. Step illustrates just how important women such as Dofat and McIntyre are, but they’re not enough. We have to fix the problems that make them so invaluable.

Working as an educator in public schools is not easy. Dofat, 50, has been working as a college counselor for 17 years. There’s an emotional scene in Step where she tearfully pleads with two college administrators to take one of her students. She’s afraid that if they don’t, the girl’s life will essentially be ruined. I asked Dofat what kept her from burning out.

“Faith,” she answered. But she also told me about the need to separate guidance counseling from college counseling to achieve more effective results. Public schools that serve poor, majority-minority populations need enough resources to hire some counselors who focus solely on social and emotional issues, and others who focus on getting kids into college, Dofat said. Most schools employ counselors who are responsible for all of it, and therefore are often overwhelmed.

Changes like those Dofat recommends could have huge implications in steering students away from the for-profit certificate and diploma mills that disproportionately target students who are poor, female, and ethnic minorities, saddling them with worthless degrees and debt they often cannot repay.

But wonkier points like that get obscured by Step’s feel-good inspiration. The film recently won the audience award at AFI Docs Film Festival and got a loving reception at Sundance earlier this year. Ultimately, public education should be the responsibility of everyone in a community. It is a public good that only works well when affluent white parents are not scared to send their children to school with poor black children and when they recognize that everyone deserves the same chances and the same resources.

McIntyre began working as a step coach and logistics coordinator at BLSYW in 2015. She went to Milford Mill Academy, part of Baltimore County Public Schools, and eventually graduated from Coppin State after initially dropping out. She’s no stranger to the hardships many of the BLSYW girls face.

“I did have a very rough time with completing high school, because I was more focused on social and creative outlets,” McIntyre said. “I graduated with a 1.8 GPA. I barely went to school, because I felt like the teachers were not challenging me, and I didn’t need to go to school. I would go to school and get A’s on tests and quizzes, but I would never prepare for anything. So, I had the ability, I had to think and had to focus, and I really felt that the teachers were not challenging me or catering to me in the way that I felt that I needed to learn.”

But even more teachers who cared wouldn’t have been enough, she said.

“There are problems that are on a way bigger scale, based off of the way our country votes,” McIntyre said. “Decisions that are based in racial and gender bias, housing discrimination, and there being actual laws that are legally segregating communities, and determining who gets resources and who doesn’t, and that’s not by mistake.

“I think that it’s clear what type of people they want to be successful. It shows grit when a little black girl like Cori [Grainger, a BLSYW senior], who never even thought that she would be Johns Hopkins material, not only makes it in Johns Hopkins, but then graduates and does well. … I think that specifically [when others look at] African-American communities, people truly believe that we want to be impoverished and in violence. Poverty is not what you see in Third World countries in the United States. The poverty is sometimes not knowing where your next meal is going to come from, or being on government assistance, or being a victim to the failed mental health system, or health care system in the United States. … So, I do think that these are way bigger issues, that people are seeing on a smaller level.”

Step is the story of young girls who are beating the odds. After seeing it, I hope audiences remember these girls never should have had to face such odds in the first place.