[Moving picture of popcorn]

Laramie Movie Scope:
With This Rock

Hoop Dreams and nightmares in Flint

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

January 27, 2006 -- “With This Rock” sounds like some sort of wedding vow, but it is actually a confused and confusing documentary about race, politics, drugs, business and basketball in Flint, Michigan. The film attempts to tie together Flint's amazing basketball heritage with an unsuccessful Continental Basketball Association franchise, a Flint mayoral recall election, the beating by police of a basketball player, the firing of a successful high school basketball coach, drug abuse and a child molester. The trouble is, these things don't really tie together at all. It is more like a loose jumble of racial and economic victimization stories.

The victimization theme kicks off in the first few seconds of the film as the narrator informs us that the CIA was involved in inner city drug trade in the 1950s and 1960s. Huh? For those of you who are not conspiratorially enabled, this refers to a couple of related urban legends that date back to a series of articles called “Dark Alliance” published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996. The stories, which were later debunked and for which the newspaper apologized, have taken on a life of their own. The idea was that the federal government was using the CIA to run drugs into the United States to raise money to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels in the 1980s and 1990s. It began as a conspiracy used by left-wingers to discredit the Reagan and Bush administrations. Then the right-wing nuts got into the act when Bill Clinton was linked to the alleged conspiracy through the Mena Intermountain Regional Airport in Arkansas, where Clinton was governor at the time. Mena was supposed to have been where drugs were flown in and weapons were flown out to the Contras.

Of course “With This Rock” doesn't explain any of this. It simply states the CIA-drug connection as an accepted fact (although it was never proven). The Rev. Al Sharpton refers to the supposed CIA-drug connection later in the movie during a stirring speech he gives in support of embattled Flint Mayor Woodrow Stanley. The bulk of the movie consists of talking heads, mostly athletes and coaches. Sometimes the movie mentions the names of the people being discussed and sometimes it doesn't. This makes it hard to figure out who these people are talking about at times. For instance, a good deal of time is given to a discussion of a Flint high school basketball player named Eric Turner, said to be the finest all-around player in Flint history. Suddenly, people in the film start talking about somebody named Leon. One might ask Leon who? It turns out you have to wait for the film's credits to find out for certain that they are talking about a Charles Barkley-type player named Leon White. I was actually able to guess the player's name before the credits rolled, but this and many other puzzles in the movie are tough to solve. The film gives the viewer hints, but little in the way of hard facts, convincing evidence, or even clarity.

The film also gives some hints as to why it spends a lot of time on a failed Continental Basketball Association team called the Flint Fuze. The film also mentions an International Basketball League (a league which folded and became part of the new CBA) team called “The Flint Stones.” It is not clear if the Stones and Fuze are the same team or different teams in the film. I found evidence on the Internet for the existence of both teams. The team may have started out as the Stones and ended up as the Fuze. The film does not provide many facts about the teams. The film never comes out and says so, but it implies that some of the businessmen behind the IBL franchise proposal are bad guys and that they may have had something to do with the recall of Mayor Stanley. Similarly, the film implies that some Flint basketball stars, like Justus Thigpen, were used to lend legitimacy to some shady businessmen involved with the franchise.

There is more victimization in a story about a basketball player attacked by a patrolman during a routine traffic stop in Michigan. The movie shows still shots of an unidentified man, which may have been either LeVan or Leon White, two brothers on their way to a basketball tournament in South Dakota. We also see the two players in South Dakota playing in a tournament, but neither one looks beat up like the still photos indicated. This does not add up. Also, there is no interview with Leon White in the film. Shouldn't this guy speak for himself? Why didn't he? There is another interview with a Flint policeman who tells a story about a Sheriff's deputy who allegedly beat a man to death. Is this officer the same person who beat LeVan or Leon White? Could be, but the film doesn't clearly make that connection or any other connection between this particular cop and the rest of the movie. The film shows a press clipping indicating the cop was fired for tampering with evidence, not for illegal assault. Yet another victim is a high school basketball coach named Mose Lacey. According to a newspaper clipping in the film, he is fired for allegedly abusing players. This allegation is not directly addressed in the film. Instead, Mose says he was fired for kicking a player off the team for using illegal drugs. No proof is offered for any of these allegations.

Various other Flint basketball stars are interviewed and discussed during the film. According to the film, former NBA players who return to Flint to try to help he community run into a lot of opposition and hostility. The film argues other communities would welcome former NBA players who wanted to organize a basketball camp, but Flint puts up roadblocks to such efforts. According to the film, people who are trying to make Flint a better place to live are running into more obstacles than just racism. They also have to fight vicious politics and envious attitudes. Some of the old time playground players said in the film that in the old days, Flint had a lot of playground basketball courts, but nowadays there are few places for children to play basketball. Older players interviewed in the film lamented bad behavior by current high school players and fans which led to a suspension of night basketball games. There is the usual litany of talented players whose skills were eroded by drugs or injuries.

The overall feeling one gets from this film is that Flint is headed downhill fast. General Motors is cutting back jobs and benefits. Flint is losing population as people move away. Students are more out of control. Even basketball opportunities in Flint are not what they once were. It is a pretty depressing, downbeat movie. A better film about Flint basketball, Flint Star: The Motion Picture covered some of the same territory and gave a bit more positive spin on Flint than this film does. This film reminds me of that TV show “Survivor” with all the same kind of squabbling, complaining, backbitting and dirty politics. This film rates a D.

I saw this film on DVD, which is now for sale. It has minimal features, including an interview with Justus Thigpen and some bonus basketball footage. Unfortunately, the DVD does not have closed-captioning and doesn't have enough subtitles to help with some hard-to-understand speech, poor audio and some unidentified people shown in the film. The color balance was off in the Mose Lacy interview (he looks green). Some of the basketball shots were poorly framed. The credits are pretty cool, though, with a water-like rippling effect used in transitions. For more information on this film, including purchase information, click on this link to the official home page of With This Rock. Oh yeah, the rock, why is that in the title? The rock is the basketball, baby.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2006 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)