TIFF Review: ‘Giants of Africa’

TIFF 2016

4 mins read

Giants of Africa
(Canada, 77 min.)
Dir. Hubert Davis
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


Academy Award nominee Hubert Davis returns to the basketball court with the inspiring feature documentary Giants of Africa. The director, who became the first African-Canadian to earn an Oscar nomination with his 2005 short doc Hardwood about his father and former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis, once again looks beyond the sport by following Toronto Raptors general manager and president Masai Ujiri on a journey across the gyms of Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya and Ujiri’s native Nigeria.

In 2003, Ujiri created the philanthropic group Giants of Africa, which lets select athletes hone their basketball skills in intensive camps and workshops. The group has expanded from Nigeria to four countries and plans are afoot to increase that number to six in the coming years. Davis offers a touching portrait of building communities and empowering youths though sport.

Giants of Africa doesn’t need a word of voiceover or a line of exposition as it follows Ujiri. Shot in crisp portraits by cinematographer Chris Romeike, Ujiri is a compelling and charismatic screen presence who speaks with authority. When Ujiri leads the young men on drills, he displays the natural ease of a leader and a genuine interest in making these players the best athletes that they can be. The film draws upon Ujiri’s own experience rising in the ranks of basketball. Though he was never a star, he developed confidence through his years on the court, and he is clearly a fine mentor and teacher.

The lessons in Giants of Africa don’t merely limit themselves to basketball. In fact, Davis smartly offers few snippets of a game in action, instead focusing on the drills, workshops, and speeches that form the backbone of the camps as the players interact. A lesson in basketball offers a lesson in life as Ujiri and his fellow instructors use the sport to enlightening the players on the ways in which an action on the court shapes their overall beings. In between layups and weaves, the Giants of Africa coaches encourage the players to respect women. They use sport as a platform for human interaction.

Giants of Africa gives a voice to the players, too, as Davis invites select athletes to share what drives them on their journeys. The back-stories of many of the boys are tough: escaping civil conflict, standing up to abusive fathers, living in grinding poverty. Their stories complement the lessons afforded within the workshops, as the seamless editing by Dave de Carlo juxtaposes one speaker with the other to show how Giants of Africa affords the players an outlet for their feelings as well as a chance to improve their skills. The film also speaks to the range of experiences and cultures within the African continent, as dialects and languages mix throughout the film.

All these players need is a safe place to learn and challenge themselves, and Ujiri says in the film that Giants of Africa is ultimately a “window for opportunity.” The doc itself comes at a time when there is a demand for more opportunities for players from diverse experiences. Davis uses Ujiri’s story to illustrative that substantial differences than one person can make if given the opportunity. Ujiri, the only African-born president in the NBA, proves the value of diversity in management levels as he takes the initiative to help future players take their best shot.

Please visit tiff.net for more information on this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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