One test of a strong documentary is whether the subject matter could interest everyone or simply aficionados. It’s tough to imagine anybody watching “Unfinished Business” without immediately buying tickets to the next available WNBA game.
Director Alison Klayman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) blends two approaches, offering us an introduction to the league itself as well as a closer look at the New York Liberty team. The truth is that both halves of this film deserve their own movie, but since each is equally compelling, Klayman never once loses our attention.
It certainly helps that she’s got such an extraordinary cast of participants. Wonderful interviews with legendary players like Teresa Weatherspoon, Rebecca Lobo, Crystal Robinson and Sue Wicks set the stage for a time — 1995 to be exact — when the idea of a professional women’s league was barely even a dream.
“When I was a girl, there were no women to be seen on television playing sports, except tennis and roller derby,” remembers Wicks. As a result, she wondered if she could somehow, possibly, be the first woman to play for the Knicks. “The opportunity to do what I loved,” she explains, “was that small.”
For the most talented college players, Lobo recalls, “the absolute peak was to play for an Olympic team. And … that was that.”
She and teammates like Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie were the ones who started to turn things around in 1996, as members of the gold medal-winning USA Dream Team. By 1999, Lobo, Weatherspoon and Robinson were Liberty icons, packing Madison Square Garden and drawing attention from adoring celebrities, families and kids who finally saw their own future on the court.
Among those kids were Sabrina Ionescu, Sami Whitcomb, Betnijah Laney, Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards, all players on the Liberty today. As Klayman intercuts between the rise of the 1997 and 2021 teams, it’s equally striking how much, and how little, has changed.
An early promo picture of WNBA president Val Ackerman, surrounded by eight male team owners, gives us the smallest sense of the mountain she and her cohorts have had to climb. Teammates were paid so little, Weatherspoon recalls, that they either had to play in Europe or work fast-food jobs during the off-season. When Wicks casually came out to a reporter who asked if she was gay, it was a huge scandal among media, fans and front office alike. And the players who achieved the biggest fame were often the ones deemed most “camera-ready” — which is to say, those who comfortably reflected a standardized image of heteronormative femininity.
Twenty-five years later there’s more room, as Weatherspoon says, for everyone to be themselves. which has in turn expanded the league’s character and fanbase. The WNBA now welcomes LGBTQ players and fans, participates in Pride events, and eventually, after some internal and external pressure, came around to supporting the players’ Black Lives Matter advocacy.
Then again, despite a major contract renegotiation in 2020, teams are still hampered by sexism and low salary caps, which means even top players are still working, often overseas, year-round. In fact, the movie itself is dedicated to Brittney Griner, a Phoenix Mercury superstar who plays with the Russian Premier League off-season and has been wrongfully detained in Russian custody for months with no end in sight. Though Klayman doesn’t actually address the situation, which likely happened too late for her to include in the body of the film, she does make clear the vast chasm of corporate and financial support between many professional male and female athletes even today.
The back-and-forth structure between past and present can feel dizzying and unfocused. But the film’s energy never flags, thanks to fantastic interviews, great footage on and off the court, lively editing and a well-chosen soundtrack that includes songs from Saweetie, Sleigh Bells, Iris Gold and Joan Jett, the latter a longtime fan who originally performed the titular Liberty theme song and who appears in the film.
Ultimately, it’s both a positive and negative that we leave wanting to learn far more about the WNBA and the Liberty. For one thing, the movie is executive produced by Clara Wu Tsai, a co-owner of the Liberty, and it certainly would have been enlightening to explore further the corporate structure and inner workings of both the league and the team.
For another, Weatherspoon, Lobo, Robinson and Wicks have all been active as coaches or commentators, but we learn little about their lives after their early years on the team. And there’s only space to get to know a few of the current players, all of whom are, like their predecessors, so charismatic and talented that we want to spend much more time with them.
Maybe the answer is to turn the movie into a series? Emotional, affecting and aptly titled, “Unfinished Business” serves as a spirited and inspiring introduction to both of its subjects. But it’s simply not big enough to encompass so many heroes all at once.
“Unfinished Business” made its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.