“Stephen himself is an institution of sorts,” observes Stephen Curry: Underrated director Peter Nicks. “His story wasn’t just his story: it was a story about the power of family, the power of community; how Oakland was overlooked, how Davidson College was overlooked.”
Nicks knows a thing or two about the institutions of Oakland, California. Underrated follows Nicks’ acclaimed trilogy of cinema verité films that explore the systems in Oakland and the lives that intersect with them. From 2012’s The Waiting Room, an immersive portrait of America’s health care system; 2017’s The Force, the Sundance Award-winning study of law enforcement reform; and 2021’s Homeroom, an inquisitive look at America’s future through the lens of the education system, Nicks knows that a good story goes beyond a single character.
Stephen Curry: Underrated marks something of a departure for Nicks. The doc shares the rousing underdog story of the point guard for San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors. Told through the lens of one of the biggest sports stars on the planet, Stephen Curry: Underrated might seem like a run-of-the-mill celebrity doc. But, like the best of documentaries that feature a star as a hook, Curry’s serves as a metaphor for a larger tale. Underrated is a film about overcoming the odds, but also one of the finding the right support networks and colleagues to help a talented underdog rise to the top.
A Story of Family and Community
Underrated charts Curry’s rise shooting hoops as the son of NBA star Dell Curry and quickly establishing himself as a force in his own right before graduating high school. However, the film tells how many college scouts underestimated Curry due to his wiry frame. Nicks shows how Curry followed an unexpected path by accepting an offer from Davidson College, a small private school in Northern California, in lieu of more prestigious institutions or teams that would have relegated him to a bench warmer. After a bumpy start with the Davidson Wildcats, though, Curry quickly proves himself with his killer three-point shots. Underrated matches the best of sports dramas as Curry leads the Wildcats to awesome victories that become a rallying point for the college’s close-knit community.
Nicks says that shifting from a community portrait to a more overtly biographical film built upon his practices of finding the story. “Even with my ensembles, a character usually emerges as a linchpin,” notes Nicks. “In The Waiting Room, it was CJ, the nurse who was the first person people that would meet when they came into the hospital. Captain Armstrong in The Force became a central character, but each of those films was about so much more. With Steph’s story, he’s the central character, but we quickly realized that it was also a story about his family.”
Present-day scenes observe Curry as he and his wife, Ayesha, raise their three children and as enjoys life at the top of the NBA. Nicks also follows Curry as he fulfills his promise to his mother to get his college degree, which remained incomplete when the NBA came calling. But the nature of family extends to the courts, locker rooms, and classrooms of Curry’s formative experiences. The story of the community at Davidson College credits figures like Wildcats coach Bob McKillop, who believed in Curry from the beginning, and Wildcats teammates like Jason Richards who understood his potential.
Finding an Authentic Portrait
Nicks also says that the attention to family and community guided his effort to create an authentic profile. In Nicks’ film, Curry is a family man who just happens to big a top athlete.
“The art of documentary is allowing someone’s authentic self to reveal itself,” observes Nicks. “In fiction, you tend to write it: you put your characters in a conflict or a position where they have to make a choice. Oftentimes, those choices reveal character and lead to authenticity. Whether it’s a first date, a job interview, or what we’re doing right now [having a conversation], we project an image of ourselves that we want to be seen. That comes from a very human desire to be seen in a positive light, to be understood, or to be recognized. With Steph, we knew that it was going be a process of allowing him to unfold for the audience in terms of who he was and what his values were.”
As archival footage of Curry’s formative years weaves between contemporary interviews and verité, one sees how little Curry changes from one era of his career to his next. He isn’t putting on any airs.
“His emotion was probably the trickiest thing to get at,” adds Nicks. “He’s a very measured person. We realized that was going to have to come out naturally—with documentary, it’s sometimes serendipity. His emotion ultimately came out in that unexpected championship that changed the trajectory of how we were structuring the movie.” Fortuitously shooting with Curry while he led the Golden State Warriors to his fifth win in NBA championships, the film climaxes with Curry unanimously scoring the 2022 title of NBA Finals MVP. “If they hadn’t won the Championship, it would’ve been a very different movie,” admits Nicks. Underrated finds a collective win in Curry’s story as he shares this victory with his family while peers like Coach McKillop cheer him on.
An Archival Feat
The real thrill of the film, however, comes in the kinetic presentation of Curry’s work on the court, particularly in the 2008 series with Davidson College. Underrated recreates not only these games through meticulously assembled archival, but also the school’s shared adrenaline rush amind Curry Fever. For Nicks, whose earlier works favoured verité, the film displays an additional challenge in that the Davidson days predate the explosion of video on social media.
Working with editor J.D. Marlowe and archival producer Matt Fisher, Nicks says his team embraced the challenge of telling Curry’s story beyond talking heads accounts. “A large part of the story happened in 2008 and earlier, but the iPhone came out in 2007,” notes Nicks. “Surprisingly, there wasn’t a ton of video of that NCAA run.” The film nevertheless draws from an array of sources to convey a seamless account of the Wildcats’ games. Sourcing snippets from NCAA footage, videos from old phones and consumer cameras held by parents and students in the stands, and some frames of what looks like old-school QuickTime, the film offers views from seats both courtside and nosebleed. The varied collage conveys the range of people who rallied behind their underdog player.
Mining for Stories
One highlight that affords a sense of Curry’s growing celebrity is a campus rap video that positions the athlete as king of the court. It’s goofy, but worthy material to illustrate the makings of a star. “Even though you don’t have a ton of footage, we were able to give a sense that we had a lot more than we did,” admits Nicks.
“We knew that the tournament run in 2008 was comprised of four games. Each of those four games had countless hours of footage,” explains Nicks. “We had to structure and present that footage in a very condensed way that didn’t feel like maybe an ESPN package.”
The film plays the 2008 Davidson games off the 2022 NBA championships, and finds parallels in Curry’s life on and off the courts. “Within those four 2008 games, we asked what were the little stories that happened?” adds Nicks. “One is that the Davidson Wildcats were down and it looked bad for the team, but the coach was smiling. We were mining those stories and moving the audience through what happened on the court in a way that connected to characters. Revealing things about the coach revealed things about Steph, like the moment where he turned the ball over 13 times in his first game against Eastern Michigan.” Even though he’s long established himself one of basketball’s great by the 2022 games, the film sees Curry point and shoot the ball with the same determination that launched his career from the three-point line during college.
The Influence of Hoop Dreams
Meanwhile, serious doc fans know that any basketball film with an underdog tale has its own challenge following in the footsteps of Hoop Dreams, Steve James’s 1994 landmark that follows Chicago teens William Gates and Arthur Agee on their quest to dominate the courts. Although Curry’s childhood is markedly different from the circumstances from which Gates and Agee found an outlet in basketball, Stephen Curry: Underrated echoes their story in that nobody should be counted out.
“William was the one in Hoop Dreams who everybody thought was going to be the superstar. Then Arthur kept rising in terms of his potential and his impact in a way that you thought he was going to drop off,” observes Nicks. “It’s important that we don’t underestimate people’s potential.”
Beyond the court, though, Nicks’ eye for the Bay Area is what Steve James’s is for Chicago. “Steve James himself is an inspiration—his commitment to time and place, his commitment to the city of Chicago as a stage from which he felt stories. Building a company, Kartemquin, to tell those stories very much influenced my work in Oakland, California,” says Nicks.
“With Hoop Dreams, it’s the immersive nature of it,” Nicks continues. “It’s not just a thrilling sports story, but it’s also a story about families living in this city trying to make it in life against the odds. I always try to look at in my films like, ‘What’s the role of family here? What’s the role of community?’ That’s not absent in a lot of professional athletes’ stories. There’s something beneath who they are as a person and why they’re able to achieve what they do.” Curry’s story, similarly, is an inspiring reminder never to count anybody out—and to never forget the hands that help you along the road to success. “A lot of the themes in Steph’s story were present in my work, which was looking not at individuals, but the relationship between institutions and community,” notes Nicks.