I’m tired. Too many publications have released definitive lists of “the greatest sports films of all time” that always include the same films that share similar problematic tropes: disrespectful treatment of women, racism, and other forms of bigotry. The genre itself does not reflect the real diversity that exists within the realm of sports. It’s time to look beyond films like Hoosiers, Any Given Sunday, and The Blind Side.
That being said, the following eight films have subverted these troubling themes.
1. Hoop Dreams (1994)
Don’t stop reading just because the film at the top of my list is a documentary. I’ll get to the fiction in a moment; but first you should know that this documentary is not just a great sports film, it is one of the greatest films of all time. Even if you’re not a Chicago native like me, Hoop Dreams connects with all audiences. Set against the backdrop of the Windy City’s best and worst circumstances, Hoop Dreams captures the years-long journey of Arthur Agee and William Gates — two ambitious boys who hope to make it to the NBA one day. The film is as much about family and adolescence as it is about basketball, highlighting what sports are all about: intersectionality and the ability to reflect the world around us.
I also bought a Bulls starter jacket just because William Gates rocked one outside of a corner store early in the movie.
2. Love & Basketball (2000)
Written and directed by female auteur Gina Prince-Blythewood and starring the romantic comedy icon Sanaa Lathan, Love & Basketball was released only four years after the establishment of the WNBA. The depictions of women’s basketball — as a sport and culture, privately and publicly — are sharply accurate. We see Monica Wright (Lathan) grow and shape herself as a young woman through the lens of basketball, something that audiences had never seen before at the time of Love & Basketball’s release. Moreover, the soundtrack elevates the film to sky-high success, featuring artists like Zapp & Roger and Maxwell. The best part about this film, though, is that Omar Epps’ portrayal of Quincy McCall, Monica’s love-interest, is the least interesting contribution to the story. If anything, he is a solid depiction of what misogyny in the sports world looks like when confronted by a talented female athlete.
3. The Sandlot (1993)
I watched this movie every Friday night after school when I was a kid. It shaped me in so many ways; it was a racially diverse account of little league baseball — sorry Bad News Bears — and its plot was poignantly realistic. Rather than relying on plot to carry the movie, the film is a quiet meditation on friendships between some of the most well-rounded, fascinating characters that I’ve ever seen on screen. Moreover, it really captures what it feels like to be obsessed beyond reason with baseball.
Plus, this movie features the first boy I ever had a crush on: Benny Rodriguez, star homerun hitter who played baseball with silent prowess. I found him downright chivalrous in The Sandlot and was prepared for him to sweep me off my feet.
4. Stick It (2006)
Jeff Bridges — yes, The Dude from The Big Lebowski — is a gymnastics coach for a group of young women who rebel against misogyny in women’s gymnastics competitions. What more is there to say?
5. Skate Kitchen (2018)
Maybe the least known film on this list, Skate Kitchen introduced the world to skateboarding from the rarely seen perspective of a young woman. Skateboarding, a male-dominated sport, is having a cultural revival right now, in part due to people of color and women — two groups previously shut out by the skateboarding community. Skate Kitchen is a subtle look into the life of a teen who wants to find a crew of female skaters to glide through the streets of New York City with. There is hardly a concrete plot to follow; rather, Skate Kitchen focuses primarily on exploring the complexity and closeness of adolescent female friendships in a patriarchal space.
6. A League of Their Own (1992)
This is a movie about professional baseball players in 1943, and there’s only one central male character. One. And it’s Tom Hanks, a national treasure. But A League of Their Own is a look into a very real, but forgotten, aspect of baseball history: when there was a women’s league. This movie has everything: a brunette Madonna, a quick-witted Rose O’Donnell, some mean fastballs, screaming home runs, and an intense face-off between rival sisters. This movie is everything that Field of Dreams and The Natural wish they could have accomplished.
7. Senna (2010)
This is a documentary about Brazilian F1 racing icon Ayrton Senna. I have never watched an F1 race in my life, and have no interest to watch one in the future — and yet, I still think this is one of the greatest films I have ever seen.
8. Creed (2015)
This Rocky sequel is better than all of the Rocky movies combined. Creed implements the same underdog plot as the original Rocky, but executes it better. Creed refrains from using overdramatic tropes, music, and other theatrics to move the story forward. It relies on raw boxing footage, smooth cinematography and the father–son relationship between Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and protagonist Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan). The film also addresses the dangers of boxing and Rocky’s metaphorical reconciliation with the glorified portrayals of boxing in his previous films. He warns Adonis that his life is on the line when he is standing in the ring. Adonis’s love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), is also a complex character in her own right and is fighting personal battles alongside Adonis. The soundtrack features a stacked list of artists, such as Future, Meek Mill, The Roots, 2Pac, and Nas.