Review by Sean Boelman
The impressive thing about the filmography of documentarian Sam Pollard is not just how prolific he is — often putting out several films in one year, but the fact that they are consistently great. The League, Pollard’s third documentary to come out in 2023 already, is as fascinating of an exploration of history as one could hope for from the expert filmmaker.
In the film, Pollard explores the history of the Negro Baseball League, which not only paved the way for Black athletes to participate in the sport of baseball, but also changed the sport thanks to its players’ unique game style. The crazy part about this story is that it involves so many athletes the world knows and loves, yet this part of the story has unfortunately not gotten enough of the spotlight.
However, the area where Pollard’s work has always thrived is in connecting the cultural phenomenon that is the subject of the documentary with the greater societal context in which it existed. In the case of The League, Pollard (quite effectively) explores how the Negro Baseball League played a role not only in the desegregation of American sports, but also America as a whole.
The film does a very good job of connecting the audience with some of the more unsung heroes of the Negro Leagues. While everyone knows the names of players like Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, there are plenty of other players whose careers proved transformative for the game of baseball, and The League exists to praise their contributions.
Of course, the nature of this story is that there aren’t a lot of interviews with the people involved in this story. In fact, the documentary even makes this into a discussion point, exploring how the mainstream media — beyond the Black press of the time — eventually became interested in these players’ careers in a step that would prove instrumental for racial equality in the United States.
For the most part, Pollard uses a combination of archive materials and talking head interviews with modern-day scholars to tell this story. Although one would normally expect such a scholarly approach to the topic to feel somewhat dry, Pollard has such a clear curiosity and interest in diving deeper into this story — and thankfully, this feeling is infectious.
The film also benefits from a jazzy soundtrack, with an extraordinary score by composer Kathryn Bostic. Bostic’s score, combined with Pollard’s characteristically kinetic editing, gives the film a vibrancy that few history documentaries are able to achieve — allowing this to appeal to sports fans, history buffs, and even those who aren’t in either niche.
The League bites off a lot with its exploration of the Negro Baseball League and its impact on culture and society, but it helps that Sam Pollard is such a skilled filmmaker he is able to pull it off. This is a documentary you should definitely see, whether you are a baseball fan or not.
The League is now playing in theaters and hits VOD on July 14.