Hot Docs

Rouge Review: A Legacy of Pressure

Hot Docs 2024

5 mins read

(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Hamoody Jaafar
Program: World Showcase


The River Rouge High School Panthers are more than a mere basketball team, they are an institution. An important pillar holding up the hopes of many in the community, the team’s storied legacy transcends their success on the court.  As director Hamoody Jaafar captures in the engaging documentary Rouge, one can chart pivotal moments in Michigan’s history through the Panthers successes and failures.

Using the team’s 2020 season as an entry point, Jaafar introduced audiences to a Panthers team that is primed to make a run for the title that has alluded them for many years.  Once a powerhouse in the world of sports, they won 12 state championships from 1944-1972 and were looked upon with the same reverence bestowed on professional NBA teams like the Boston Celtics. For decades, the team has struggled to reclaim their past glories.

Seemingly anchored in the waters of disappointment for several years, all eyes are on coach LaMonta Stone to be the captain who will steer the ship back to success.  A former Panther player from the championship years, Stone runs his locker room with a firm hand.  He not only expects a strong work ethic in each game, but also in his players academic studies as well.  Stone has no qualms calling out a player for their bad grades in front of the entire locker room.

As the audience observes through the four players (Ahmoni Weston, Brent Darby Jr., Keyshawn Devlin, and Legend Geeter) Jaafar’s film follows, Stone’s brand of tough love provides a structure and sense of security that not many are afforded. These students, some of which endure a 45-minute bus ride to get to school, know the dangers they would be subjected to if they were not part of the River Rouge basketball program. As one player notes in the film, recounting a previous program his dad oversaw until it ran out of money, all his former teammates are dead. Without a stable and safe place for them to grow up, they fell into the temptations of the streets.

Rouge frequently reminds viewers of the harsh realities of the world around the Panthers.  Everything from the impact of the economic downturn in Michigan, which forced many to leave the state, to the history of racial tension in the area, is touched on in the documentary.  The issue of race really hits home when Jaafar highlights the significance of Lofton Greene, the legendary coach who first brought the team to championship glory.

Ignoring the racial lanes that few refused to cross, Greene was the first coach of his era to have an all Black starting five. Despite having an equal number of white and Black players try out for the team, he simply let the best players take the lead.  He knew the presence of a predominantly Black team would provoke the ire of both fans and referees, but he instructed his team to keep their composure and stick to the winning system he had put in place.

Incorporating archival footage and interviews with those who played under Greene, Jaafar provides plenty of insight into the foundation that made the Panthers such a powerhouse in their golden era.  Juxtaposing the successes in past with the teams’ challenges in the present, Rouge evolves into a compelling tale of basketball’s ability to unite and uplift a community.

This sense of bonding is especially felt when players of the past revisit the rundown gymnasium that the team once called home.  While some of the championship banners still hang, the peeling paint and rubble on the floor encapsulate both the passage of time and the financial struggles the community has faced.

An engaging crowd-pleaser, Rouge captures the history and resilience of a community whose flame of hope will never burn out as long as their team is on the court.

Rouge screened at Hot Docs 2024.


Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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