I was only a teenager at the time, but I remember vividly the shockwaves that rippled through the culture when Magic Johnson announced he had HIV and would be retiring from basketball immediately. This was November 1991, after HIV and AIDS had been spreading at an exponential rate, but before a lot of the prejudices and misconceptions about the disease had dissipated. When Magic, despite his retirement, got selected to 1992 All-Star Team, for example, several players advised him not to play and one, Karl Malone, expressed concern that he could get an open wound on the court and expose people to his infected blood. Those concerns persisted as Magic helped lead the Dream Team in Barcelona, and speculation was rampant over his sexuality and off-court behavior. The stigma of having HIV and AIDS has, of course, faded considerably as science and the culture has adapted to it, but it’s important to put Magic Johnson’s announcement in context and understand just how hard things were for him—and others infected—in 1991.
Stock car racer Tim Richmond died of AIDS in the summer of 1989, over two years before Magic’s bombshell, and though the mediocre new 30 For 30 documentary Tim Richmond: To The Limit includes Magic’s announcement towards the end, I wish it had been put at the beginning, just for the sake of context. Coming out as HIV positive in any sport in the late ‘80s could not have been easy, but in NASCAR, a world dominated by conservative Southern good-‘old-boy types, it would have been impossibly toxic. So Richmond couldn’t be blamed for letting the truth die with him, much as the endless speculation must have added stress his body didn’t need. Yet it’s still sad to watch this sometimes touching (if irritatingly conventional) hour-long tribute to Richmond and see such a brash, rebellious, outspoken athlete silenced by shame and bigotry.
For the third straight week, following MLB Productions’ Four Days In October and NBA Entertainment’s Once Brothers, 30 For 30 again turns to an official source (NASCAR Media Group) for To The Limit and again suffers a cookie-cutter approach that tells a story cleanly, but not innovatively. Through the expected mix of talking heads and archival footage, the film adequately recounts the rise and fall of Richmond’s career, which was cut down abruptly in its prime. And perhaps because this is a NASCAR production, it soft-pedals the organization’s pernicious attempts to keep Richmond off the track through a false positive drug test. NASCAR may be anxious to remember a great driver now, but it doesn’t come to terms enough with its own shameful past.
Nevertheless, the Richmond that emerges in To The Limit is a galvanizing figure who brought a new kind of charisma to the sport. Given the pejorative nickname “Hollywood,” he was perceived as the rare “cosmopolitan” man in a field dominated by Southern boys with ten-gallon hats. There’s a lot of wiggle room in the word “cosmopolitan”—and a lot of wiggling once news of Richmond’s pneumonia started to circulate—but it mainly described a fast-living, womanizing, long-haired type who had a place in New York City (gasp!) with mirrors on the bedroom ceiling (double gasp!) and didn’t fit in. Add to that a racing style that was raw to the point of reckless, and Richmond was a wild card in the field.
Not long after getting Driver Of The Year honors, Richmond started getting sick, and the most affecting footage in To The Limit finds him competing—and winning—despite looking desperately ill. (It had to be humbling to the other drivers to see Richmond hacking uncontrollably while waving the trophy around.) Of the interview subjects, only Richmond’s sister, Sandy Welsh, gives much insight into the real man, but he remains mysterious in a lot of ways. The film never speculates on how Richmond contracted HIV—and as a matter of taste, perhaps it shouldn’t—and it doesn’t go too far beneath the libertine image he projected in the sport. The sad irony at the heart of To The Limit is that Richmond, so flamboyant and individualistic a figure in his heyday, ended his life walled up in shame. In that sense, the film is more resonant as a reflection on past attitudes about HIV/AIDS than as a profile of a man who dared not speak its name.
• This is the fourth straight documentary plagued by the awkward device of staging “conversations” between people. Unmatched is almost entirely Evert and Navratilova pretending (unconvincingly) to chat as if the camera wasn’t there; Four Days In October has Bill Simmons and Lenny Clarke talking Red Sox over beers; Once Brothers springboards from a bizarre scene of Divac having a meal with his family at a restaurant; and now To The Limit has Richmond’s buddies from Ashland, Ohio (called “Hometown Friends”) sharing stories while nursing a pint. I understand the impulse to avoid conventional talking-head interviews, but this is not a good alternative.
• Any NASCAR fans among us? It’s maybe the one sport on Earth I can’t bring myself to watch, and I was disappointed the film didn’t go into more detail about the strategy and athleticism that separates one driver from the next.
• Upon reflection, I think I underrated Once Brothers a bit and have changed the grade from C+ (mixed to negative) to B- (mixed to positive). I really haven’t liked this run of institutionally produced documentaries, but that one was the class of a sorry lot.