The votes are in: Magic Johnson is one of the most amazing human beings to walk the earth. The basketball player's announcement on November 7,1991 that he had the HIV virus forever changed the face of the disease. As the Nelson George-directed ESPN documentary, The Announcement -- which premieres Sun/11 -- tells us, after Johnson came out, suddenly everyone knew someone with HIV.
Hey, you just got diagnosed with a life-threatening mystery disease. Now go tell the world!
Most people know the basic plot of The Announcement. This was one of the league's most talented players, a young pointguard who led his team, the Los Angeles Lakers. But Johnson's five NBA championships required a lot of celebrating and he partied hard, without a condom, with a lot of women, at the chagrin of his long-suffering college sweetheart Cookie Kelly, who he later married.
The movie's candid treatment of Magic's infidelities serve as the right dash of reality to temper Nelson's film's hero worship. You need a little texture to your protagonist, even if he is by most any definition The Man, which I mean in the awesome way and not in the don't-let-him-get-you-down way. Seriously, that smile? Look at Magic Johnson's smile. He is clearly the most handsome man who has ever lived.
And then he got HIV.
“This is not like my life is over, because it's not.” When Johnson stood in front of cameras at that now-infamous press conference, most people probably didn't believe those words. Back then, HIV was seen as a death sentence. The movie does a superlative job of capturing the fear tornado that surrounded the disease.
Not to mention the crippling ignorance that led fellow NBA players like Karl “The Postman” Malone of the Utah Jazz to question whether it was safe to even play basketball with an HIV-positive person. Malone emerges as the movie's villan, unrepentent about his harsh words even in the interviews director George shot recently. “He manned up,” he says of Johnson's continued health after 20 years of living with the disease, a statement that caused boos to emerge spontaneously from the group I watched the advance copy of the movie with. The NBA developed “infection control procedure” inspired by Johnson's diagnosis. Humiliating treatment for a player who used to be the king of LA.
So yes, The Announcement is a heartstring-tugger. The musical score is a bit after-school special. (It's actually the only thing about the movie that I just COULDN'T, with its treacle-y manipulation. The scene after Arsenio Hall recounts how he heard the big news for the first time -- the driving piano chords made me laugh out loud, like a total asshole who is laughing out loud at a movie about AIDS.) There is one scene from an educational TV special Johnson made in which he is talking to HIV-positive children about what it's like to live with the virus that is emotionally crushing.
That the movie is good should come as no surprise -- ESPN's been making some phenomenal films over the last few years, most notably The Two Escobars , the Zimbalist brothers' look at the braided paths of Colombia's drug empire and its professional soccer scene. Sports serve as an epic canvas on which to make points about society, and that's clearly being explored in some of the productions coming out of the media company. George is a budding film talent himself, and has proven himself to be an apt documentarian of the African American experience in his books on hip-hop culture and the intersections of art and sociology.
Humans triumphing over adversity! In The Announcement, George portrays Johnson as a preternaturally positive individual, smiling that god-like smile throughout a trial that would have sunk, if not killed someone less proactive. Johnson's All-Star Game MVP award, won during the same season as “the announcement,” his Olympic gold medal, the way he calls Elizabeth Glaser, AIDS activist and wife of Paul Michael Glaser, a.k.a. Dectective David Starsky of Starsky and Hutch, for advice on living with the disease. Even before he is diagnosed with AIDS, his moves! His off-court outfits! Those belted purple short-shorts, the fur coat that looks like he's wearing the largest lion's mane of all time.
The main emotion evoked by the film is relief. HIV, even AIDS, is no longer a death sentence. People no longer protest HIV-positive children in public schools or think the virus can be transmitted through sweat. It's no considered a problem exclusive to gays. Johnson was the man most involved in changing those perceptions, so if the background music gets a little dramatic when he's onscreen in The Announcement, that's okay -- the guy earned it.
The Announcement premieres on ESPN Sun/11 at 9 p.m. For information on other screening times go here