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TCA Diary: LeBron’s ‘Warriors of Liberty City‘ looks at youth football in Miami

Another new Starz series, ‘America to Me,’ examines race and class in a Chicago-area high school

LOS ANGELES — A new documentary series from LeBron James offers a different glimpse of the same community that Barry Jenkins depicted in Moonlight.

Liberty City is the impoverished Miami neighborhood where Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney grew up. In Warriors of Liberty City, which premieres Sept. 16 on Starz, audiences are introduced to another side of the community through youth football.

James serves as co-executive producer alongside Maverick Carter, Jamal Henderson and Evan Rosenfeld, who also directs. The series follows Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, who’s spent decades as a mentor, coach and founder of Liberty City’s youth football team, the Warriors.

The Warriors are known for producing future football stars. They count Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, Devonta Freeman, Antonio Brown, Duke Johnson and Teddy Bridgewater as alumni. That history has heightened the Warriors’ reputation as a path out of poverty, out of misery, out of bad public schools with outdated textbooks.

Starz was also the home of the scripted series Survivor’s Remorse, of which James was a producer. Survivor’s Remorse, inspired by James’ own life, featured a young basketball star figuring out how best to serve his community with the financial haul he’s acquired from basketball and endorsements.

His decision to executive produce Warriors also came from identifying with the kids whose stories it tells.

“If you look at the body of work he’s doing right now, and you look at where he came from — him and Maverick and the rest of his team of guys and ladies — he understands,” said Campbell. “They look at this and they say, ‘Man, that was me who had to be taken home by the coach every day. That was me who had to get fed by the coach, be clothed by the coach.’ So those guys see a lot of their self in these kids, and they want to spread it to the world.”

In a panel discussion here at the Television Critics Association press tour, Campbell hit on what’s at stake in Liberty City and football as a form of refuge.

“That was me who had to get fed by the coach, be clothed by the coach.”

“This s— is real,” Campbell said. “And these kids are dying. These kids are going through situations in schools, high schools. Just like I say, they ain’t eating. I was coaching football the other day in Liberty City. Kid said, ‘I can’t practice, Coach.’

“ ‘Why you can’t practice?’

“ ‘Because I don’t have underwear on.’

“Go down, get him what he need to get. Go to a house and you sit there and knock on the door, mom answers. There’s a mattress and eight kids sleeping on that one mattress. … Those kids you see on this documentary here? Dads getting kicked out the house. Moms getting separated because they lost their job. It’s real. That’s why I can appreciate what they’re doing more than anything in the world. Because when I look at this show, I see a lot of the things that we have to deal with on a daily basis. … The playing field is not level.”

What’s compelling about a youth program like the Warriors is that it’s more important than just first downs, winning and losing. It’s a refuge. And football as a refuge presents its own set of conflicts, given what we know about the dangers of concussions, or even small hits that don’t result in concussions. Last year, scientists published a study that concluded that playing football prior to age 12 can lead to increases in mood and behavioral problems later in life. Campbell told me there’s been a drop-off among players in the 14-15 age range because of concerns about CTE. So he’s trying to mitigate that.

“Because we know that, because we know this is where they love to be, it has to be safe,” Campbell said. “It has to be safe, whether it’s safe from crime or safe from equipment. You can buy the wrong type of helmet, go the cheap route, and if a kid goes helmet-to-helmet, it might be a problem.

“We have to purchase more expensive, more advanced helmets so if that happens, the kids are protected. At the same time, you have to teach them the proper form of tackling and those things before they make the contact. Before — I’m just going to keep it real — before, people weren’t doing it. It was, ‘All right, go out there. Bang, bang, bang. The guy who hits the hardest is the kid who will play.’ But now it’s much more about safety. If a kid gets knocked out or anything like that, it’s a big problem. But it doesn’t happen, not that often.”

America to Me: Race and class in a Chicago suburb

I’m also quite excited to dig in to America to Me, another Starz docuseries. This one, told in 10 parts, comes from director Steve James, who recently garnered an Oscar nomination for his 2016 film Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

James is best known for co-directing Hoop Dreams. That 1994 film focused on five years in the lives of two Chicago teens as they navigated two worlds: their homes in inner-city Chicago and the largely white suburban high school where they attended school and played basketball.

Now, James is revisiting those themes, although his main characters aren’t athletes. And this time, he’s exposing racial disparities in Oak Park, a place that’s overwhelmingly liberal, “woke” and well-funded. James calls Oak Park, which borders the city of Chicago, a “magnet for biracial families.”

Jada Buford and Charles Donalson III are black students at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF). Speaking at TCA, Donalson could not withhold his frustration, not just with his experiences at OPRF but also with who gets opportunities and who does not.

“The Austin community right next to Oak Park [in Chicago] is so much more poor,” Donalson said. “It’s so much more disadvantaged and not as privileged as ours. And the only thing that separates us is literally a street. Like, those are my friends that are coming over that aren’t allowed the same privileges as me, just because their parents couldn’t afford to live in this neighborhood. And I think that, you know, we cute and everything. I mean, I’m glad that they thought we was special enough to put a camera on us, but go put a camera on them. …

“Start giving us stuff where we ain’t gotta struggle no more. … When I was in here yesterday, and I’m watching all the money it probably take to just set up this room. There is literally situations like this where we’re hoarding wealth, and that’s the same thing that Oak Park is doing. That’s the same thing this entire country is doing. And it’s because white people are selfish. It’s because the people in power don’t wanna give us the money that they have. They don’t want to give us the privileges they have. S—, they don’t even wanna give us books.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.