One test for a strong documentary is whether the topic can interest everyone or just an amateur. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching Unfinished Business without purchasing tickets for the next available WBNA game right away.
Director Allison Kleiman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) mixes two approaches, giving us an introduction to the league itself as well as a closer look at the New York Liberty team. The truth is, both halves of this movie deserve their own, but since they are both equally compelling, Klayman never loses our attention once.
She sure got such an extraordinary representation from the participants helping her out. Fascinating interviews with legendary players like Teresa Witherspoon, Rebecca Lobo, Crystal Robinson and Sue Weeks set the stage for a period — 1995 to be exact — when the idea of a professional women’s league was hardly a dream.
“When I was a girl, there weren’t any women on TV who played sports, except for tennis and the derby,” Weeks recalls. As a result, I wondered if she could somehow be the first woman to play for the Knicks. “The opportunity to do what I loved was very small,” she explains.
For the most talented college players, Lobo recalls, “the absolute peak was playing for an Olympic team. And…that was it.”
It was she and co-workers like Sheryl Swoops and Lisa Leslie who started to turn things around in 1996, as members of the gold medal-winning American Dream Team. By 1999, Lobo, Weatherspoon, and Robinson were Liberty icons, packing Madison Square Garden and drawing attention from celebrities, families, and kids who finally saw their futures on the field.
Among those kids were Sabrina Ionescu, Sammy Whitcombe, Bettnia Laney, Michaela Onenwer and Diddy Richards, all of whom are Liberty players today. As Klayman intersects the rise of the 1997 and 2021 teams, it’s equally astonishing how much the change has gone and how little has come of it.
An early promotional photo of WBNA President Val Ackerman, flanked by eight male team owners, gives us the slightest sense of the mountain she and her teammates have been climbing. Weatherspoon remembers his teammates were underpaid that they had to either play in Europe or work fast food jobs during the recession. When Wicks came across an offer for a reporter who asked if she was gay, it was a huge scandal among the media, fans, and front office alike. And the players who achieved the most fame were often those considered “camera ready” – that is, those who comfortably reflected a unified image of heterogeneous femininity.
Twenty-five years later, there’s more room, Witherspoon says, for everyone to be themselves. Which in turn led to the expansion of the league’s personality and fan base. The WNBA now welcomes LGBTQ players and fans, participates in Pride events, and eventually, after some internal and external pressure, came to support the call for Black Lives Matter players.
Then again, despite major contracts being renegotiated in 2020, teams still face a handicap due to gender discrimination and low salary caps, meaning even top players can still work, often abroad, throughout the year. In fact, the movie itself is dedicated to Britney Greiner, the Phoenix Mercury star who plays for the Russian Premier League in the off-season and has been unjustly held in Russian custody for months with no end in sight. Although Klayman does not actually address the situation, which would likely have been too late for her to include in the body of the film, she does illustrate the huge gap in institutional and financial support between many male and female professional athletes even today.
The hull back and forth between past and present can feel dizzy and unfocused. But the film’s energy never fails to hurt, thanks to great interviews, great shots on and off the court, lively editing, and a well-chosen soundtrack that includes songs from Saweetie, Sleigh Bells, Iris Gold, Joan Jett, and the last one from a longtime fan who originally performed Liberty. featured in the movie.
In the end, it’s both positive and negative to leave him wanting to learn more about the WNBA And the Freedom. For one thing, the movie is executive produced by Clara Wu Tsai, co-owner of Liberty, and it sure was worth exploring the company’s structure and the inner workings of both the league and the team.
On the other hand, Weatherspoon, Lobo, Robinson and Wicks have all been active as coaches or commentators, but we learn little about their lives after their early years on the team. And there is space only to get to know a few of the current players, all of whom, like their predecessors, are so charismatic and talented that we want to spend more time with them.
Perhaps the answer is to turn the movie into a series? Emotional, poignant, and aptly titled, Unfinished Works is an inspiring and lively introduction to both its themes. But it’s simply not big enough to hold a lot of heroes at once.
Unfinished Business had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.