The biggest problem with On the Shoulders of Giants is that if you heard of The Harlem Rens then its premise of the “greatest team you’ve never heard about” falls apart. The film assumes that you have never heard of the Harlem Rens, the first all black-American basketball team, and that you know very little about the Harlem Renaissance and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. However anyone with basic American high school education would have heard of these two movements. Granted the basketball team is more obscure, but anyone interested in this is likely to enjoy basketball, at the very least, and probably be aware of some of its history.
It is no secret that for greater part of its history The United States was a pretty shitty place to live if you were black; lynching was a national sport and you wouldn’t be allowed at most nice restaurants unless you were the busboy. In sports, besides lynching and boxing, you were generally not allowed to participate professionally. It is no surprise then that the first all black basketball team that played professionally, that is for money (and not necessarily competition), played in the dance floor of an underground casino in Harlem called The Renaissance. Ultimately the team does end up playing professionally and at one point the Harlem Rens even become national champions. Unfortunately, unlike another early all black team the Harlem Globetrotters, bad managing and finances latter in their life turned them into a footnote of the era.
The story is compelling, and maybe it did needed to be told. But there are many others like it and we have heard them all. The documentary also doesn’t do a particularly good job at visualizing the era or the team. The same clip of one match is used over and over again, and the film compensates its lack of primary footage by filling in space with animations that ultimately become repetitive as well.
It is a well intention film. And Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who has written a book on the subject, is a compelling narrator and host. But it doesn’t offer anything new, and by the time it is all over you leave with a strange feeling that you have heard it all before. However, if you are very interested on the subject, you might want to check it out. It is available on video on demand on several websites. So google it up and check out for yourself.