Former women’s basketball player pays homage to her sport and Black women with new documentary
Melanie Page hopes ‘Can’t Retire’ allows basketball players and Black women to be heard as humans and respected athletes
Melanie Page Dunning grew up thinking her basketball talent and love of the game would create a financial path for college. She didn’t plan for the severe concussion in high school that redirected her path to film.
Now, the 27-year-old — who goes by Melanie Page — is starting a new chapter in her career as a filmmaker and writer with her first documentary series, Can’t Retire From This, underway and projected to be released later this fall.
Page, a native of Laurel, Maryland, is using the series to pay homage to women’s basketball in the Washington metropolitan area, which has molded some of the best players in the nation and internationally. Similar to the players Page has interviewed, basketball has been the foundation for her life’s journey, manifesting itself in ways she least expected.
“I feel like this [documentary] has been a work in progress since I stopped playing basketball,” said Page. “The whole filming and coming back home has been kind of therapeutic. I haven’t been home since college.”
Page says she hopes her documentary shows the raw and beautiful talent of women’s basketball. Too often, the Washington metropolitan area has been overlooked in the conversation of basketball as a whole and many people do not think to track the career paths and success of the athletes from the area.
“Growing up, Riverdale Baptist was the big school. ESPN released an article back in May 2020, about the same time we started working on this, that was ranking the top-five high school programs for girls basketball in the country and Riverdale Baptist was ranked No. 2,” said Page, who played in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, a major Catholic high school conference for two archdioceses in the Washington metropolitan area that is ranked No. 1 in the country. “All eyes were on us all the time. In the summertime, we have big tournaments here so everybody from all around the country comes to the DMV [D.C.-Maryland-Virginia] to recruit for basketball. It’s a known fact that the DMV is the best, so telling that story is important.”
Since childhood, Page has been an observer of culture. As a kid in the 1990s, looking through the Toys R Us catalog, Page realized the subtle conditioning of seeing white Barbie dolls with lavish accessories.
“I was like, ‘Melanie, what do you want for Christmas?’ ” said Adrienne Dunning, Page’s mom. “She said, ‘I want the white Barbie because the white Barbie has the house, the car, [and] the pool. I was like, ‘Wow,’ and I wrote to the president and he called me and couldn’t believe that a child would be able to see that. I think that started her on a direction of looking at some of the similarities and differences in things, and you can definitely see it in basketball.”
Page’s early observations of her identity as a Black woman, being mishandled and absent throughout the media, would be the basis for her new documentary series. Toward the end of March 2020, Page left Los Angeles and returned to her family in Maryland during the quarantine. The downtime caused by the pandemic gave Page time to dive into the stories being told about basketball and to challenge the narratives.
“There was this documentary called In The Water, about boys basketball in P.G. County, Maryland. I didn’t see myself represented or anyone else that I played with or played against,” Page said.
This moment inspired her to create the very thing she saw missing: praise of women’s basketball in the Washington metropolitan area.
“It’s unfortunate that girls don’t get to play at the next level as much as the boys,” Page said. “Basketball is created for us. So it is time for me to tell the stories. I’ve been in the filmmaking world for X amount of years, so I have experience and the necessary tools.”
Page’s introduction to basketball came via her mother, who was her coach at the Laurel Boys and Girls Club. Dunning, now the basketball coach for a 10th grade team called the Dynamic Disciples and the 17U Family Over Everything winter league teams, led Page and her team to championships when Page was 7, 9 and 11 years old.
The sport is deeply ingrained in Page’s lineage. Dunning was an athlete for American University as part of the first group of women to receive any type of academic funding for sports despite not being able to call it a scholarship or discuss it openly. Dunning’s father, Melwood “Pep” Davis, was an inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1985 at North Carolina A&T State University. Page graduated from the same historically Black college and university in 2015.
“Even before that, my great uncle who was basically my father’s guardian was a Negro League baseball player,” said Dunning. “He played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays [and] a whole bunch of other people, and that’s why Melanie uses the name Page, because his name was Ted Page. I like that she pays homage to the Page side because that’s where all the athleticism is.”
For Page and her mother, being coach and athlete while also being mother and daughter were almost synonymous. “It was natural,” said Dunning. “Even though I was her primary teacher growing up, there was always somebody else there. We work this stuff as a village. I can’t honestly say I knew all five positions. She’s a guard, I was not a guard. I was a center and a forward.” For Page, being coached by her mom laid the foundation for the types of coaches and superior figures she’d have in her life.
As a point guard, Page made a name for herself in her area. In middle school, she was a part of the starting lineup both in seventh and eighth grade. When she got to Elizabeth Seton High School, her team was among the top 10 in the country and No. 1 locally. As a freshman, Page went straight to playing on the junior varsity team and started for a bit. She even started varsity while the star player recovered from a knee injury.
“To be called upon to start and you’re 14-15 years old on a team that has national and big-time regional presence, that is a lot of fanfare. It’s a lot of pressure,” Dunning said.
Page was a consistent starter by her senior year and playing with the hopes of receiving a basketball scholarship for college. A head injury during a recruitment game ended her physical contributions on the court.
“I was in the game and I was going up for a rebound. I came down and hit this girl’s shoulder on my temple and hit the ground,” recalled Page.
She suffered a severe concussion but continued to play ball. She could never shake the symptoms and said she often experienced painful headaches and memory loss.
“There wasn’t as much research on concussions and recovering from it as there is now,” said Page. “I never stopped playing, and that’s what messed me up.”
Having a head injury ultimately made it too dangerous for Page to pursue college basketball. That’s when she pivoted to her second love: digital media.
“She asked for a camera when she was in maybe second grade or first grade and we gave her a toy camera,” said Dunning. “We didn’t know she wanted a real one. Basketball can be taxing mentally when you’re playing at a really high level, so I always thought it was important to do something else. So, I was like ‘Melanie, what do you want to do?’ Well, there was a digital media academy she wanted to go to, so we sent her there. It was in Philadelphia.”
It was there that Page fell in love with the concept of digital media, and her parents sent her back the following year to a program at Georgetown University.
“Between those two experiences, she knew what she was going to do when she got to college,” said Dunning.
Despite Page’s concussions making a future in basketball impossible, her experiences as a baller were valuable to her next journey.
“I really just wanted to be a photographer but my concussion propelled me to motion capture because I had memory issues. So, I had to resort to videography, photography and writing in order to heal and retain memory,” said Page.
The love and need for digital media would work in Page’s favor when she attended N.C. A&T. In 2011, when Page was a freshman, she created her own production company, Major Motives, while majoring in journalism with a focus in broadcast production. Despite replacing a basketball with a camera, Page maintained her relentless, resilient work ethic. On weekends when others were partying, Page could be found editing video, hosting meetings or writing out her next project. It would be this drive that separated her and set the foundation for her to work in the writers room of David Talbert and with ESPN Films her senior year of college.
“At the time, I had no clue what I was doing or the importance of me going there [N.C. A&T],” said Page. “But when I look back, I see my confidence, being surrounded by people who look like me and were accepting of my art. We started Major Motives and started doing web series, music videos and then became involved with the radio station. Just being in demand. I had no clue how good I actually was until I started doing the work and getting opportunities at that school, just being accepted. I didn’t necessarily get that at my high school.”
Page has worked on the sets of projects such as Almost Christmas (2016), El Camino Christmas (2017) and Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020). As a Black woman who has experienced sexism in basketball and the erasure of Black stories that are liberating and multifaceted, Page is focused on creating content like her new documentary in a voice that allows basketball players and Black women to be heard as humans and respected athletes.
“[The] stereotypes are not reflective of the truth or my truth. I know I got into basketball because it was exciting, the skill sets could be applied and that was so necessary for my foundation,” said Page. “It sucks to see on the internet people bashing the things that made me love the game.”
Even though Page is not on a physical court, her purpose in the film industry has been driven by the ball.
“I get my work ethic from basketball,” Page said. “I wouldn’t be working this hard in film all of these years without basketball. Showing up early to the gym, I show up early to set. Studying film, studying games … how to communicate, how to be a leader, those are all transferrable skills. I’m a point guard by nature.”