When you think about the Harlem Renaissance, it’s easy to conjure up the poets and the rent parties, the intellectuals and the politicians. But Bobbito Garcia and Kevin Couiliau, co-producers of the documentary “Doin’ It in the Park”, want you to think of something else: basketball.
The Harlem Rens, to be precise. The team was one of the first and perhaps most famous black professional ball clubs in history. And they offer a starting point for the two filmmakers as they dig into the history of street ball in New York City. Garcia is already a celebrated DJ (who’ll be spinning at this year’s Facing Race conference in Baltimore), ball player, and author in his own right. Couliau, who grew up in France, was always drawn to the artistry of the U.S. game and has gained a reputation as a prolific photographer. Together, the two have been screening their film at basketball courts across the city to pay homage to the game and the people who play it.
As summer winds down, I spoke to both to get a sense of what the film’s meant so far.
Kevin, you’ve done “Heart & Soul.” And Bobbito, you’re known for your love of the game throughout New York City. Why was it important for you both to make this film now?
Kevin: We both felt there was something missing from documentaries about basketball culture. You see documentaries about players who didn’t make the NBA for whatever reason. But you never have documentaries that explain the roots of the street ball culture and why New York is a mecca.
From what I’ve seen, the film is as much an homage to basketball as it is to New York City. What is there in this film for audiences outside of New York City?
Bobbito: We had the vision to cover New York because it is indeed the mecca for the outdoor sport worldwide. However, the beauty of Kevin being from France and me having been raised here but also having traveled to 35 countries throughout the world is that we have a very global perspective. So the way we interpreted and sorta did this honest portrait of pick up basketball in New York was so that it could be digestable and enjoyed by anybody, no matter what the continent that plays pick up basketball — or that doesn’t. So far from the feedback that we’re getting is that even people that couldn’t care less about the sport are really, really intrigued and fascinated by the film. That was a goal of ours. Of course we want our niche audience to be happy, and so far we’ve been getting crazy reviews from all around.
What’s some of the most surprising feedback you’ve gotten so far?
Kevin: That’s a good question. I would say when we ran into Henry Chalfant from [the movie] “Style Wars” and he came to one of our screenings. He really enjoyed the movie and after the screening he said it was like —
Bobbito: “the perfect portrait of urban culture.” And if you’ve watched Style Wars and know what it means to the hip-hop world. That coming from him is pretty heavy, I think. Another real moment of clarity for us was when we screened it at Rucker Park. Free and outdoors on a hot summer night, 600 people showed up. It’s only a mile away from the Apollo Theater, right, so the mindset in Harlem is basically if things suck, they will boo you off the stage in two seconds. But not only did not one person leave the park, we recieved a standing ovation. That was as good of a meter as we could get, ever. It doesn’t matter what the film industry writes about it now. The most important people in the world, in terms of being educated and really understanding what this film is all about, not loved it but were blown away by it. That for us was powerful.
You all went to hundreds of courts throughout New York City. What were some of the similarities and what were some of the differences?
Kevin: We traveled to 180 courts by bicycle and, to be honest, they were all unique. Whether they were in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, wherever they are, the beauty of New York street ball is the landscape. For me, for example, growing up in Europe, the playgrounds and the basketball courts are not that well integrated into the landscape. I would say that’s one of my main interests when I come to New York, is documenting that world of playground basketball for the beauty of the landscape as well as for the people on the playgrounds.
Bobbito: And that’s where our film starts getting really diverse. We interviewed 60 people and we went to five boroughts, 180 courts, I would say there’s easily 30-40 nationalities portrayed on camera and we have 3-year-old’s to 80-year-old’s shooting jumpshots on camera. It’s as diverse a community as one would imagine. It’s the melting pot of the world. That shines in the narrative of the film.
Kevin, you mentioned something and I kinda wanna go back to it. You mentioned the differences in terms of the landscape between the U.S. and France. How did you become interested in street ball in New York, being from France?
I grew up playing basksetball a lot and skateboarding at the same time. Basketball and skateboarding, when you’re a part of those cultures, they all go to one point, which is New York City. So I grew up being influenced by how skakeboarding was being represented in magazines and videos…So I grew up being influenced by the artistic world. When I was growing up I saw documentaries like “Hoop Dreams” that really influenced me and I was influenced by basketball culture in New York City and I transfered that to my vision of basketball in France. The way we build the playgrounds, the way we play basketball. I was always looking to New York City as the mecca of sports and I always wanted to document it. So I met Bobbito in 2004 and we went from there.
Bobbito, you’ve been part of the scene for years and so your perspective in terms of looking at this as a cultural phenomenon has always incorporated music, basketball, art. How do you think it’s changed over the years — or has it?
Bobbito: It’s been decades, almost half a century. I don’t think it has changed probably since the 50s or 60s. Actually, I think there’s always been a marriage in New York between music and basketball that dates to the Harlem Reniassance Ballroom in the 1930s when they had their own professional team, which was the first African-American team ever to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. And at halftime they would have the greatest, big band jazz players of the era playing. And they would have a dance, then they would go back to the game. The floor would be slippery because of the people who had came on. Then you move forward tot he 70s where — we discuss this in our film — there’s a burgeoning hip-hop culture on the very same playgrounds where there are courts and everybody’s playing. Those two movements influenced each other until today. We don’t know yet what the new music culture’s gonna be that’s gonna pop out of New York, but in some way, shape or form basketball is gonna influence that or help form it.
This article has been updated since publication.