Author, Athlete and Filmmaker Kareem Abdul-Jabbar barnstormed DC to receive the The Ford’s Theatre Society Lincoln Medal and promote his first documentary film.
By Michael M. Clements
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a triple double this weekend, and no, it wasn’t while shooting hoops with the President (which is about the only thing he didn’t get around during his trip to Washington D.C.) This triple double showed-off the NBA’s all-time leading scorer‘s deep intellectual side. The prolific scorer is also a prolific writer, having penned seven books. He’s also just competed his first documentary film, turning one of them On the Shoulders of Giants into his first documentary film. Oh, and he was honored with the Lincoln Medal.
His trip started Sunday night at The Ford’s Theatre Annual Gala to benefit the Ford’s Theatre Society, which works to present the theatre’s nearly one million visitors each year with a “high quality historical and cultural experience.” Abdul-Jabbar, along with actresses Julie Andrews, were both presented with Lincoln Medals – an annual award given to a person with an outstanding career and commitment to education, equality, and exemplifying the character and legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. Past recipients of this award have been filmmaker George Lucas, actor Sidney Poitier, Dr. Maya Angelou, actress Ruby Dee, Congressman John Lewis, singer Aretha Franklin and many others.
Abdul-Jabbar’s weekend didn’t end there. The next day, IMPACT Arts + Film Fund hosted held a private screening of his documentary, “On the Shoulders of Giants: The Greatest Basketball Team You Never Heard Of” at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. The skillfully-directed doc by Deborah Morales tells the story of the Harlem Renaissance Big Five, also known as The Harlem Rens, who played basketball in a time of segregation where “colored” teams could not compete against white teams or for league championships. However, the Harlem Rens were the best of the black basketball teams striving for a national championship. Despite racism and the Great Depression, they became the first world champions of professional basketball by defeating every team and serving as role models for black America. Until today their inspirational story had not been told on a grand scale.
Some of the film’s most poignant moments come when Abdul-Jabbar is educating leading African-American sport and entertainment figures with the tale of the Rens. Meanwhile, interviews with Dr. Cornell West and Spike Lee added to the film’s gravitas. Director Morales’ deft special 3-D effects brought the limited archival footage and photos to life. In the post screening Q&A moderated by IMPACT Arts + Film Fund’s Jamie Shor, Abdul-Jabar told the audience that a “basketball fanatic Rabbi” in upper state New York donated a 40-second film clip of the Rens in action. It was the only film footage they could find. The film is available for download on NetFlix.
In line with why he was awarded the Lincoln Medal, Abdul-Jabbar is working to get the film inserted into high school social studies courses as a way to discuss and frame the issue of race relations in America during the 1920s and ’30s.
Following the screening, IMPACT Arts + Film Fund and mover / shaker Kimball Stroud helped put together a private dinner, appropriately, at Lincoln Restaurant. Owner Alan Popovsky rolled out the red carpet, along the penny rolls (the restaurant’s floor has close to 1 million pennies on it) to host a select group of Washington insiders, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, writer Maureen Orth, Lamell McMorris, Tanya Lombard, photographer / filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, filmmaker Susan Koch, and MSNBC contributor Karen Finney.