This documentary series gives short thrift to its adolescent athletes, much to its own detriment.
The Netflix documentary series We Are: The Brooklyn Saints begins with a collection of voiceovers from Brooklyn residents. This narration talks about the misguided perceptions the general public has about Brooklyn and its denizens. “Brooklyn is more than killing and the gangs,” one man says while another notes that the borough is “more than what’s on the news.” These lines reflect the thesis of the show, which is to show a whole other side of Brooklyn by following a local youth football team.
This team is where the show’s name comes from. The Brooklyn Saints are a gaggle of football players coached by the exuberant Gawala, who has plenty of help from the parents of the children on the team. There’s no money in this gig, but there is the chance to give great opportunities to the next generation. Early on, one assistant coach notes that winning games isn’t the goal of this team. Rather, it’s to instill a love for football deep enough that these kids might be able to get a football scholarship. That’s the only way many of these kids can afford to get to college.
Immediately, We Are: The Brooklyn Saints establishes that its stakes will be established less by touchdowns and more by intimate matters off the field. Such matters are not just defined by financial hardships. They manifest in many other forms, such as Kenan’s internal conflict on whether he wants to pursue football or robotics as his career. Connecting all these storylines is the quietly tragic fact that it’s hard for the people Brooklyn Saints chronicles to just live in the moment. The past and the future are always breathing down their necks and intruding on the present.
Director Rudy Valdez does such strong work capturing these moments that instances of on-camera subjects living in the moment prove extraordinarily touching. Such moments are defined by openness, never does We Are: Brooklyn Saints feel like it’s polishing its characters for the camera. A father/son conversation between football play D-Lo and his dad, for instance, sees D-Lo’s dad simultaneously coming clean about his shortcomings while telling his son to have pride in his name. It’s a scene that’s as raw as it is moving.
The adults in We Are: The Brooklyn Saints more than fulfill that opening desire to flesh out the residents of Brooklyn as more than stereotypes on the evening news. But, I was left yearning to get to know more about the kids on the Brooklyn Saints team. Despite the shows four episodes running for over three hours total, the only two kids we get to know in any great detail are Kenan and D-Lo. The rest of the players just sit in the background and don’t get time to express their own perspectives.
Immediately, We Are: The Brooklyn Saints establishes that its stakes will be established less by touchdowns and more by intimate matters off the field.
Giving so many of the team members the short thrift does end up hurting some moments of poignancy in the program. Most notably, a line in the fourth episode about the adolescent team members being “a family” rings hollow since we’ve only really gotten to know two members of that “family”. Moments where D-Lo gets frustrated with his teammates also don’t register as intensely as they should since he’s bouncing off of people we’ve barely gotten to know.
Also disappointing in terms of how the kid athletes are handled is an extended section of the first episode that sees Gawala taking these youngsters on a camping trip. During the exercise, emphasis is placed on how it will finally get these kids to put down their phones and communicate with one another. The whole outing feels too “kids these days” with its dismissal of kids and how they use technology. Rather than explore how these youngsters use their phones to connect like never before, We Are: The Brooklyn Saints settles for reducing these members of Brooklyn Saints as caricatures of Generation Z.
It’s the most glaring instance of how, while the adults in this show get to be fleshed-out multidimensional people, the adolescent football players remain more vaguely defined. This flaw makes scenes dedicated to just watching the Brooklyn Saints football games somewhat monotonous. Since the players haven’t been fleshed out, it’s hard to get invested in their actions on the field. It doesn’t help that Valdez and his camera crew are much more comfortable shooting intimate one-on-one conversations with people rather than trying to capture the frenetic movement of a youth football game.
The best parts of the We Are: The Brooklyn Saints make me wish the show as a whole were more consistently-realized. A scene where Gawala opens up about his past is just so vulnerable, so captivating. The scenes with the kids, meanwhile, feel so surface-level. The camerawork in the more intimate moments is so immersive yet that same quality underwhelms in capturing football games. One could say the show scores a touchdown in some areas but fumbles the ball in others.
We Are: The Brooklyn Saints premieres on Netflix January 29th.