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Boys in Blue: A high school football team grappling with race, police and violence | Documentary

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Ohen George Floyd was unlawfully killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, the moment struck home with Peter Berg. Before the 58-year-old New Yorker became a distinguished filmmaker, Berg was a theater student at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota. He had long fond memories of that heyday of the late 80s – when the Twin Cities were famous for their compassion, low crime rate and artistic revolution.

It was a special moment. “Purple Rain had just come out,” Berg recalled. “There was a famous nightclub in Minneapolis called First Avenue. We went there twice a week and saw Prince, Time or Alexander O’Neal. There was this diverse musical phenomenon that was happening when I was there, and my memories are of people who got along really well – Black, white, Hispanic, Vietnamese. It was very disorienting to see George Floyd brutally killed in a place that I remember so differently.

Eager to understand why and how the Twin Cities community has changed, Berg found himself looking for answers in sports, a comfort zone he’s made his own like few in Hollywood – transforming the world’s best-selling football high school Friday Night Lights into a massive on-screen franchise, producing and starring in HBO’s comedy-drama Ballers and launching ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series with a throwback to the NHL trade that sent hockey great Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles. When Berg read a New York Times article about a Minneapolis high school in the shadows where Floyd was killed that had a football team coached by cops, he knew that was where he needed to be. . “I felt there was something unique and special happening in the community.”

Under his Film 45 production company label, he assembled a film crew to spend the 2021 season fitting in in Minneapolis North. Unsurprisingly, the school community – with its harsh scars from neighborhood and police violence – was initially wary of the cameras. Little by little, Berg & crew had to convince them. “We talked to black and white police officers who were coaching in high school, talked to families, talked to kids and said, ‘Look, our goal was to go out there and observe what’s going on and try to create a bit of separation from the binary opinions that surround these issues. We have no idea how this will end.

The result is Boys in Blue, a four-part series that debuts this week on Showtime in the US. And at first glance, it’s hard not to miss the sight and sound echoes of Netflix’s Last Chance U. Blue’s goal is much broader. This not only puts these personal stories in the context of a crime-ridden town at the center of the fundraising movement, but the individual characters are much more textured.

The players are practically babies, the main contributors are just high school sophomores – forced to grow up too fast; the most tender moments are when they can only be children. The coaches wear two uniforms, and the professional makes some kids fundamentally uncomfortable. As liberal white protesters in the Twin Cities grapple with police on the streets and call for their abolition, players in Minneapolis North worry about the safety of their coaches and job security on the sidelines. If a ballot measure that proposes replacing the police with a more nuanced public safety service passes, Minneapolis North coaches would be forced to find new jobs that may not offer the same flexibility for football.

Anchoring the series is the relationship between offensive coordinator Rick Plunkett and quarterback Deshaun Hill Jr – one, a beaten-up Minneapolis cop; the other, an incredibly dodgy 15-year-old in the police who has lost loved ones to violence on all sides. It’s a layer of complexity beyond the typical game designer-trigger dynamic, and it makes their journey to developing mutual trust all the more compelling. But once Hill finds out that Adams isn’t all that different from him, a neighborhood kid who joined the police to serve and protect, Hill returns. And once they get on the same page, Minneapolis North turns into a heavyweight with a real chance of playing in a state championship in the home stadium of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings before college scouts.

Of course, football is not without problems either. The life-threatening injury to Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin was the starkest reminder yet of the game’s inevitable physical and mental dangers. But Boys in Blue shows why the game is too important to quit. It’s not just a way out for these boys – a ticket to college, at least. It’s a passion, a refuge, the impetus for a disparate array of otherwise wary strangers to become family. “Football strikes me as one of the few remaining constants that people are able to unite around,” says Berg. “You’ve got 22 men on a pitch at the same time, all of them having to operate with real coordination to achieve something that’s hopefully near perfection in an environment where there’s brutal physicality, grace, athleticism, balance, courage, resilience. This is one of the great principles of cultural organization in our country.

Deshaun
Quarterback Deshaun Hill Jr. Photography: Showtime

Boys in Blue could have easily rocked Dick Wolf’s rank copaganda. But by staying focused on the full story and withholding all judgment, Berg paints the most comprehensive picture of the funding debate to date‚ one that makes it almost impossible not to have empathy for all parties – even the white assistant coach who reluctantly finds himself at the center of his viral video moment with a black bus driver. “It’s definitely not our goal to tell people what to think,” Berg says. “I don’t believe there are sides to this particular story. There is only what there is.

But the biggest punch comes in Episode 4, when Hill is killed by random gunfire as he leaves school on a freezing February day. The documentary was in the middle of its final week of filming. The night before, Berg’s crew had filmed him on a date with his girlfriend, daydreaming about their future, debating whether to kiss on camera. His teammates and coaches knew it was Hill the moment they saw a photo of the walking boot on his left foot, the byproduct of a season-ending injury.

The man accused of Hill’s murder – ruled second degree murder – is expected to go to trial this month. “It obviously traumatized us involved in the making of the show and re-traumatized people in the community,” Berg says, hushed. “George Floyd was the triggering incident for us coming over there. And then here we are, nine months later, having a memorial for Deshaun in the same auditorium where the George Floyd memorial was.

“I’ve done scripted movies about Navy Seals, policemen, and drill workers who died. I met their families and tried to tell their stories with respect. But I’ve never experienced anything like that. »

Hill was such a loss — a gentle, reluctant soul, honor roll student, and NFL contender who was just beginning to catch the eye of big college recruiting. Without him, Berg wondered how to end the series. Ultimately, he ended up screening early cuts for community members in northern Minnesota before delivering a final product to Showtime. It’s an ending Berg could never have imagined – harsh and yet deeply poignant. “There’s no playbook for dealing with the heartbreak that comes when a 15-year-old boy who hasn’t even begun to reach his prime is brutally murdered in a senseless way,” says Berg. “I said to the team, ‘It’s going to take a long time, it’s going to hurt and those emotions have to be honored.’

“But for anyone open to taking a look at the doc, it’s also beautiful to see Deshaun Hill in all his glory – laughing, scoring touchdowns, kissing his girlfriend, loving his sisters. It’s one of the weird and unpredictable opportunities that documentary filmmaking gives you to touch something special.

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