A documentary film breaks the rules and wins an Oscar

1970s college basketball star Lusia Harris, who was featured in the 2022 Oscar-winning documentary short, ‘The Queen of Basketball’

EDITOR’S NOTE: All time codes in this article correspond to the YouTube version from “The Queen of Basketball”. It is also available with a introduction by filmmaker Ben Proudfooton the New York Times website.

A admission: I like movies 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 of their lives. Tears are one of my reliable signs of a great movie.

I was introduced to the Canadian filmmaker Ben Proudfoot through a mutual friend and have since become a huge fan of his work. Last year, I joined a year-long networking/mentoring group he created for young filmmakers. It was by participating in this group that Proudfoot provided me with much encouragement and feedback, helping me to complete my first film.

Filmmaker Ben Proudfoot at the 2022 Oscars

Filmmaker Ben Proudfoot at the 2022 Oscars.

Proudfoot is an Emmy and Academy Award-winning director and founder/CEO of Breakwater Studios, a production company specializing in short-form humanistic documentaries for The New York Times and brand documentaries for a range of clients, including governments and corporations like Huckberry, Lululemon and Sotheby’s. According to Breakwater’s website, “Proudfoot is highly sought after for telling emotionally moving, easily shareable stories in a short documentary style that combines the best of high-end Hollywood cinema.”

My version: His films make me cry – a lot. (Thanks, Ben.) His Oscar-winning short film, “The Queen of Basketball” was no exception. I barely had two minutes into the story when I grabbed the tissues.

Unsung genius profiles

In December 2019, Breakwater Studios and The New York Times launched a new historical and op-doc series titled “Almost known.” The films in the ongoing series focus on people who, due to time and circumstances, failed to make history, but still lived fulfilling lives. Breakwater describes them as “unrecognized geniuses” and “singular accomplices of history”.

Such a person was Lusia “Lucy” Harris, who led the Delta State University women’s basketball team to three national championships in the 1970s, scored the first points in the first women’s Olympic basketball game in 1976 in Japan and was the only woman to be officially drafted by a professional team, the then New Orleans Jazz, in 1977. She refused to join the pros (watch the film to find out why), instead becoming a specialist teacher and high school basketball coach. Later, she was the first black woman to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Harris died earlier this year at age 66, so I had no idea her story had won an Oscar.

My public speaking coach once compared the emotional journey of a great story to a heartbeat: we should experience highs and lows of all intensities to create emotion and liveliness. From music to framing to Harris’ narration, Proudfoot and his team chronicled the ups and downs of Harris’ life in 22 minutes onscreen.

MUSIC as tone and tension

Proudfoot once told me that music for a director is like sauce for a chef: it brings a flavor that shapes the piece. The opening track of “The Queen of Basketball” (from 0:09) is a mouth-watering sauce! The film begins with a light and jerky classical score that sounds whimsical, exciting and dreamlike. As more and more string instruments and drums are added, it sounds like the soundtrack of a victory lap. The music sets the tone: it’s a celebration of Harris’ life. At this point, I already totally agree: “What an amazing person. Who is she?”

The musical arrangement that plays as part of the 1975 national basketball championship, Delta State University and Harris’ first national victory, is used to build and then release tension, another hallmark of great storytelling. (6:07 a.m. to 9:04 a.m.). Harris’ team, the Lady Statesmen, are the underdog and seek to end Immaculata College’s three-time reign of the national championship. Vivaldi’s “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Immaculata College is a Catholic school) plays over the opening clips of the game until Harris’ team begins to get ahead. A marching drumbeat is heard, merging with “Gloria” as the teams fight one-on-one. Tension and anticipation mount. “Gloria, Gloria…” is sung over and over to the beat of the drum. It’s hilarious and releases some of the tension of the moment.

FRAMING as intimacy

Breakwater films are often in a 4:3 aspect ratio which looks square, distinct from the more common elongated rectangular frame. Sometimes Breakwater makes the frame look even smaller, creating a sense of peeking into someone’s world. Just a 1:10 in “The Queen of Basketball”, for example, the smaller frame is used on black-and-white stock footage of black neighborhoods. It’s nostalgic, like a distant memory, and fits into the audio of Harris describing his childhood.

I’ve always been taught to leave enough room for a subject to move when framing my interviews, but the 4:3 aspect ratio of Breakwater films breaks that rule. The square crop only allows for Harris’ face – according to Zoom’s effective etiquette, which would be called “too close.” There are even brief moments where Harris laughs and partially moves his head out of frame. No more broken rules! But it creates a very intimate experience; you can see and feel the excitement, grief, and emotion that Harris feels as she tells her story.

WIN, WIN, WIN along the journey

One of the coolest things about “The Queen of Basketball” is how Proudfoot and his team take full advantage of Harris’ humor and playfulness. His speech is structured like that of an actor: there is the editing and then his punchline. All of the “Almost Famous” plays are structured like hero journeys, but because Harris is so smart, we experience the satisfaction of a win every few minutes rather than having to wait for the movie to hit its major wins in life, like winning national championships or going to the Olympics.

This technique works particularly 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 if I had kept playing,” she says. You think, for a brief moment, that this is his last word. And then, “But it’s not,” she said, “so I’m not speculating.”

What memorable last words.

Celebrate the human

Breakwater Studios calls itself a “leader in short-lived humanistic documentaries.” Google “humanism” and there are many definitions, but a common thread is the celebration of the human condition. Proudfoot and his team demonstrate, film after film, that they enjoy telling stories that reconnect us to the wonder of human beings.

They make me cry and remind me that it’s good to be alive.