EDITOR’S NOTE: All time codes in this post correspond to the YouTube version of “The Queen of Basketball.” It’s also available, with an introduction by filmmaker Ben Proudfoot, on The New York Times site.A confession: I love films that make me cry. Not tears of sadness, but tears that spring from being touched, moved and inspired by the spirit with which people face the challenges in their lives. Tears are one of my reliable signs of a great film.
I was introduced to Canadian filmmaker Ben Proudfoot through a mutual friend and have since then become a huge fan of his work. Last year, I joined a year-long networking/mentorship group he created for young filmmakers. It was out of participating in that group that Proudfoot provided ample encouragement and feedback, supporting me in finishing my first film.
Proudfoot is an Emmy and Academy Award-winning director and founder/CEO of Breakwater Studios, a production company that specializes in humanist short form documentaries for The New York Times and branded documentaries for a range of clients, including governments and companies like Huckberry, Lululemon and Sotheby’s. According to the Breakwater website, “Proudfoot is highly sought-after for telling emotionally moving and easily shareable stories in a short-form documentary style that combines the best of premium Hollywood filmmaking.”
My version: His films make me cry – a lot. (Thanks, Ben.) His Oscar-winning short doc, “The Queen of Basketball,” was no exception. I was barely two minutes into the story when I reached for the tissues.
Profiles of unsung genius
In December 2019, Breakwater Studios and The New York Times launched a new historical and op-doc series called “Almost Famous.” Films in the ongoing series focus on people who, due to time and circumstance, fell just short of making history but went on to live fulfilling lives anyway. Breakwater calls them “unrecognized geniuses” and “singular accomplices to history.”
One such person was Lusia “Lucy” Harris, who led the women’s basketball team at Delta State University to three national championships in the 1970s, scored the first points in the first Olympic women’s basketball game in 1976 in Japan, and was the only woman to be officially drafted by a pro team, the then-New Orleans Jazz, in 1977. She declined to join the pros (watch the film to learn why), instead becoming a special education teacher and high school basketball coach. Later on, she was the first Black woman to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Harris died earlier this year, at age 66, so never knew her story was awarded an Oscar.
My public speaking coach once likened the emotional journey of a great story to a heartbeat: We should experience ups and downs of all intensities to create emotion and aliveness. From the music to the framing to Harris’s storytelling, Proudfoot and his team delivered those ups and downs in Harris’ life in 22 minutes on the screen.
MUSIC as tone and tension
Proudfoot once told me that music to a director is like sauce to a chef: It provides flavor that shapes the piece. The opening track in “The Queen of Basketball” (starting at 0:09) is some enticing sauce! The film starts with a light, staccato classical score that feels whimsical, exciting and dream-like. As more string instruments and drums are added, it sounds like the soundtrack to a victory lap. The music sets the tone: This is a celebration of Harris’ life. By this point, I’m already all in: “What an incredible person. Who is she?”
The musical arrangement that plays under the 1975 National Basketball Championship, Delta State University and Harris’s first national win, is used to heighten and then release tension, another hallmark of great storytelling (6:07 to 9:04). Harris’ team, the Lady Statesmen, is the underdog and seeks to end Immaculata College’s three-time, back-to-back reign over the National Championship. “Gloria in excelsis Deo” by Vivaldi (Immaculata College is a Catholic school) plays over the first few clips of the game until Harris’ team starts to pull ahead. A marching drumbeat comes up, merging with “Gloria” as the teams battle head-to-head. Tension and anticipation rise. “Gloria, Gloria…” is sung over and over under the drumbeat. It’s hilarious and releases some of the moment’s tension.
FRAMING as intimacy
Breakwater’s films are often in a width-to-height 4:3 aspect ratio which looks square-ish, distinct from the more common elongated rectangular frame. Sometimes, Breakwater makes the frame even smaller, creating a feeling of peeking into someone’s world. Right at 1:10 in “The Queen of Basketball,” for example, the smaller frame is used over archival, black-and-white footage of Black neighborhoods. It feels nostalgic, like a distant memory, and fits under audio of Harris describing her childhood.
I’ve always been taught to leave enough room for a subject to move when framing my interview shots, but the 4:3 aspect ratio in Breakwater films break that rule. The square crop only allows for Harris’ face — according to effective Zoom etiquette, that would qualify as “too close.” There are even brief moments when Harris laughs and moves her head partly out of the frame. More rule-breaking! But it creates a very intimate experience; you can see and feel the excitement, heartbreak and emotion that Harris experiences as she tells her story.
WIN, WIN, WIN throughout the journey
One of the most genius things about “The Queen of Basketball” is how Proudfoot and his team take full advantage of Harris’ humor and playfulness. Her speech is structured like a comedian’s: there’s the set-up and then her punchline. All the “Almost Famous” pieces are structured as hero’s journeys, but because Harris is so clever, we get to experience the satisfaction of a win every few minutes rather than having to wait until the film gets to her major life victories, like winning the national championships or going to the Olympics.
That technique works especially well at the end (20:45), where Harris explains why she turned down an offer from the NBA. Does she have any regrets? “Maybe the world would have known my name had I continued playing,” she says. You think, for a brief beat, that that’s her final word. And then, “But it didn’t,” she says, “so I don’t speculate.”
What memorable last words.
Celebrating the human
Breakwater Studios calls itself a “leader in humanist short form documentaries.” Google “humanism,” and there are many definitions, but a common thread is a celebration of the human condition. Proudfoot and his team demonstrate, in film after film, that they love telling stories that reconnect us to the wonder of being human.
They make me cry, and remind me that it’s great to be alive.