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‘The Air Up There’ (PG)

By David Mills
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 07, 1994

Proof of the utter emotional and intellectual fraudulence of "The Air Up There" -- a putative feel-good dramatic comedy about Africans, basketball and a white guy's life lessons -- comes when its star, Kevin Bacon, is required to climb the sheer face of a mountain alone, bare-handed, no ropes, wearing sneakers. With a bum knee. Darned if he doesn't make it to the top of those scary rocks, getting to breathe ecstatically "the air up there."

We are asked to believe that Bacon's character, a callow college coach named Jimmy Dolan, does this as a sacred manhood rite of the Winabi, a fictitious rural East African tribe. We are asked to believe that Dolan later allows the Winabi to consummate this process by holding him down and slicing his belly. (Which, if "The Air Up There" were somehow connected to human reality, would have been a circumcision.)

We are asked to believe that these prideful, tradition-rooted Africans have beseeched Dolan to become one of them. "I believe in you, Jimmy Dolan," says Saleh (Charles Gitonga Maina), the Winabi basketball prodigy he's been trying to lure to America. "I would like to be your brother." And we are asked to believe that Dolan goes through this life-threatening ritual so he can play on the Winabi basketball team during the Big Game!

We are asked not to purchase steel-toed boots and go to Hollywood looking for butts to kick.

All that heavy stuff about mountain climbing and ritual scarification and trans-racial brotherhood takes up five minutes of a lightweight, mechanically scripted, Disney-distributed fable about underdogs who have to win the Big Game! They're just devices thrown into the pot along with scatological jokes, slo-mo slam dunks and assorted fish-out-of-water cliches. Thus are Africans trivialized -- and thinking moviegoers insulted -- by "The Air Up There."

Now, I realize that I might be taking much too seriously something that was simply conceived as an entertaining, well-intentioned family picture --

No, no, my brother. You were on the right track with those steel-toed boots. This film is filled with vicious poisons of THE WHITE MAN!

Whoa, you're sounding pretty paranoid.

Why don't you mention the story's most sinister conceit?

You mean, that the villain is a fat, grinning, corrupt, urbanized African named Nyaga (Mabutho "Kid" Sithole)? That Nyaga and his henchmen, through scheming and outright terrorism, try to drive the noble Winabi off their land and exploit the mineral rights? And that the Big Game pits the ragtag Winabi players against Nyaga's own experienced team in a brutal full-court game -- with the tribe's entire future at stake?

You got it, my brother. Ain't that a blip? This PG movie is trying to teach our young folks that the enemy of the African is his black brother, and that it takes a WHITE MAN to help the Winabi "gain their self-respect," as Dolan puts it. "I believe in you, Jimmy Dolan," they make this strong-bodied young African say. Yeah, right. Like you believe in a blue-eyed Jesus.

Settle down. Perhaps "The Air Up There" does have a grossly pre-enlightened approach to the politically intricate issue of black athleticism. On one hand, Saleh is presented as the epitome of a natural-born athlete, emerging from a lake like a glistening beast, sailing through the air in cinematically exaggerated leaps. On the other hand, the tribe must rely on the disciplined leadership and tactical smarts of its white coach for all this natural talent to be worth anything.

Ah yes, my brother. You're starting to get hip to the ways of THE WHITE MAN! But look in the publicity booklet. When the time came to teach Kevin Bacon some game, the movie producers hired brother Bob McAdoo. We're talking five-time NBA all-star Bob McAdoo. A black man. "Kevin has come a long way since our first day," McAdoo says of the pale boy.

Perhaps none of these complaints would matter if "The Air Up There" worked on its own modest terms -- if it made you care about (or even doubt) the outcome of the Big Game, and made you care about the human relationships involved, the emotional stakes. But neither Max Apple's script nor Paul M. Glaser's direction succeeds in convincing you that these characters live, or that this story has anything to do with any thing.

I'm down with what you're saying, my brother. And hey, do you think it's just a coincidence they hired an actor named "Bacon"? The swine-eating devil ...

"The Air Up There" is rated PG for vulgar language.

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