Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With March Madness in full swing, and a Criterion Blu-ray upgrade of Hoop Dreams dropping in a week, we highlight some of the best movies about basketball.
After winning two national championships at UCLA, and before going on to win rookie of the year and four NBA titles, Jamaal Wilkes—going by his birth-name, Keith—brought his skills and charisma to the big-screen in 1975’s Cornbread, Earl And Me, the story of a basketball prodigy that transforms into a drama about racial and socio-economic injustice. Dribbling his ball at all hours of the day and night in his run-down apartment-building home, Cornbread (Wilkes) is primed to play in college. Early sequences capture the character’s cheery disposition as he pals around with his proud parents (Stack Pierce and Madge Sinclair), the local criminal (Antonio Fargas’ One-Eye) who unsuccessfully tries to recruit him to run numbers, and his doting nephew Wilford (Laurence Fishburne, in his debut role). Also focusing on the welfare- and romantic-related dilemmas of Wilford’s mom (Rosalind Cash), director Joseph Manduke presents a convincing panoramic portrait of inner-city existence, all while bringing electricity to his scenes of Cornbread schooling opponents on blacktop courts to the sound of the film’s theme song, “Cornbread.”
Things take a turn for the tragic when one of the characters, mistaken for a murder suspect, is gunned down in the street by a cop (Bernie Casey). Efforts by the victim’s family to bring a lawsuit against the city result in police intimidation, leading to a courtroom hearing in which lawyer Blackwell (Moses Gunn) argues that the deceased was wrongfully killed. The ensuing action is more lethargically staged than need be—one can imagine a Law & Order episode handling this in an hour—and despite being listed in the title, Wilford’s friend Earl (Tierre Turner) is of absolutely no consequence to the proceedings. Nonetheless, Cornbread conceives its characters in three dimensions, thanks in part to compelling performances. Fishburne, for one, evokes not only childlike enthusiasm (and vulnerability) as Cornbread’s biggest fan, but also staunch courage as his character becomes the one person brave enough to speak truth to power. Blunt as it sometimes may be, the film remains relevant—an alternately amusing and infuriating snapshot of life on the margins.
Availability: Cornbread, Earl And Me is available on DVD, which can be obtained from your local video store/library. It can also currently be watched its entirety on YouTube.