Directed by Nelson George
The announcement is something which, I am fairly confident, the majority of people at least know about. My generation, maybe a little less since I was three when it actually took place. Heck, my generation may not even know how great a basketball player Magic Johnson was for all I know, thinking instead that the great LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose are among the best players ever. And they are great players, but man what I would do to be able to have seen Magic in his prime. The epic battles with Larry Bird and the Celtics (and the Sycamores) in the 80s, and the presence of the ‘Showtime’ Lakers night in and night out. The highlights are breathtaking.
But so too was the day in October of 1991 when the world’s best basketball player announce to a timid public that he was retiring from the NBA due to the HIV virus which he had attained. In a country, and coming out of a decade, where HIV/AIDS was considered the “Gay Cancer”, what Magic Johnson did was more courageous and more important that anything else that had preceded regarding the virus. At that point the excuse was that, well I don’t know anyone with it so it can’t affect me. But when Johnson came out, obviously everyone knew someone. That is what makes this a significant event, and nothing else. Without that impact, without the situation that this played into, “the announcement” would not be as important as it is, but as it stands it is probably the biggest event in HIV/AIDS awareness history.
One of the things that Magic Johnson says in the film, and it is so true, is that this happened to the right person. That may seem somewhat twisted that he would say that about himself contracting HIV, but in reality if it was going to be anybody with the visibility of a superstar, Johnson was the right guy because of what he meant to so many, but also because of his attitude towards life. They called him Magic because of what he did with a basketball, but the film also paints him as a lover of life. Johnson had fun playing the game, and wasn’t afraid to show everyone in the crowd and involve them in the show. Basketball has become so serious with the stars like LeBron James making a great play and then showing their intense game face. Johnson would do something unbelievable and smile and laugh.
The strengths of the film lie in its ability to set the story up, explain the significance of the event in a fairly concise manner, and show the undeniably likable Magic Johnson as somebody less than perfect, yet perfectly suited for the role this virus landed him in. The 80s were a rough time in regards to AIDS, as we saw previously in Tim Richmond: To the Limit. The main difference between Richmond and Johnson however is what Johnson did with it. Richmond’s story is the norm, a man with AIDS who was perhaps a little too liberal in his sex life who hid the disease all the way up to his death from it. Johnson embraced the opportunity to raise awareness for safe sex, research (which has led to him living as long as he has), and for the most important: that having HIV should not make you an outcast, despite what the general consensus was at the time.
The film, with a little more ambition and perhaps a little more time, could have been a truly great documentary on an important social event that impacted one of the biggest social developments in the last 30 years. It, instead, is a very competent presentation of everything that went on with little real depth, but that should not take away from the affect of the story to begin with. Having Johnson narrate the whole thing may have been a misstep, as I found it to be a little too weird, too scripted. I would have preferred a much more natural progression of the story. The best way to sum up the film has to be the 1991 NBA All-Star game. Johnson was voted in by the fans despite having retired earlier that year. He was urged by the NBA to play, and when he showed up he was embraced by his peers and celebrated by the fans, who were subsequently treated to one heck of a show my Magic. The case of Magic Johnson and HIV helped to dispel many of the false myths associated with the disease. He truly was meant to live with the virus.
*** – Very Good