Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Travis Vogan reviews Sporting Blackness

Samantha N. Sheppard. Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2020. 264 pp.

Review by Travis Vogan

20 October 2021

The last decade has seen an increase in humanistic scholarship on sports media—an important part of popular culture long ignored by academics. Focusing mostly on film, Samantha N. Sheppard’s Sporting Blackness: Race, Embodiment, and Critical Muscle Memory on Screen offers a trailblazing contribution to this rising tide of work.

Sheppard brings together an interdisciplinary tapestry of source material to explore how blackness is depicted on screen over time. Sheppard contends that the Black body on screen disrupts the traditionally conservative conventions of the sports film. It has “skin in the genre,” as she puts it (p. 6). The book’s analyses cut across and bring together Hollywood fiction, documentary, video art, experimental cinema, and more. Sheppard’s examples range from the critically acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams (dir. Steve James, 1994) to the almost universally panned gender-bending rom-com Juwanna Mann (dir. Jesse Vaughan, 2002) to Haile Gerima’s obscure and formally iconoclastic student film Hour Glass (1971). 

The concept of “critical muscle memory,” this book's most important theoretical intervention, unites its diverse analyses. Sheppard develops the concept—which puts Black embodiment at its center—through an inventive combination of kinesiology, critical theory, media studies, and sports history. Representations of Black sporting bodies, Sheppard argues, house critical muscle memories, which are “embodied, kinesthetic, and cinematic histories that go beyond a film’s diegesis to index, circulate, reproduce, and/or counter broader narratives about Black sporting and non-sporting experiences in American society” (p. 5). These depictions are freighted with resonances that exceed their textual meanings and generate new significance beyond the specific framework in which they are presented and consumed. Critical muscle memory is a subtle and slippery analytic that Sheppard deftly employs to study “how meaning is made and remade through spectacles of the raced and gendered body in sports and cinema” (p. 17). For instance, Sheppard’s discussion of Deborah Morales’s documentary on the all-Black Harlem Rens basketball team, On the Shoulders of Giants (2011), contends that the Rens compose a history that is immanent to, though seemingly invisible within, contemporary Black sports culture. This contemporary culture carries critical muscle memories that, while not always fully conscious, nevertheless reverberate from the Rens and can be traced back to the groundbreaking team. Such implicit and allusive connections are made apparent by the Black historical contestants—from the past and in the present—that Morales’s documentary brings together on screen.

Sheppard’s explorations of critical muscle memory on screen offer incisive and revealing comments on the handful of texts Sporting Blackness explores in detail. But the main ideas Sporting Blackness theorizes will productively echo throughout and beyond the interdisciplinary cluster of fields it uses to forge its novel and eloquent contributions.