Set mostly in 1990, this drama feels like a throwback to that decade -- it has the straightforward, literal style of a TV movie, though with a lot more swearing, drinking, and drugs. If you've never heard of Jackie Ryan, New York streetball, or the Harlem Wizards, go watch the Losers Netflix episode about him -- or dig up his Tedx talk. Then, if you're still interested in his story, press "play" on Blackjack: The Jackie Ryan Story. It will fill in some of the blanks about a basketball player who, the opening press montage tells us, was "one of the biggest wastes of talent in the history of basketball." And it certainly does evoke the vibe of that time in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, when it seemed like everyone's dad had a blue-collar job and Yuppies hadn't quite moved in.
As Blackjack begins, we see that Jackie's father doesn't want young Jackie to play basketball: "You know I hate that monkey ball," he says threateningly. Against the backdrop of Brooklyn protests around the 1989 killing of Yusef Hawkins, modern-day viewers may be primed to expect that race will emerge as a theme of the movie, and it does -- in a way that feels decidely uncomfortable today. As they watch the news, Jackie's family members comment, "So, what, now all White people are bad?" And overconfident Jackie is pitted against Gill Turner, a Black player from the same neighborhood who made it onto the Nets. Jackie expects the "neighborhood boys" to stick together, but Turner is consistently unsupportive and at a pivotal point explains why: "We all know why you keep getting second chances. We both know lots of Black guys could bust Jackie's ass but never get a chance." Blackjack ends with (spoiler alert) Jackie beating Turner in a one-on-one playground game as a crowd of locals cheers him on. The epilogue shows us that, years later, Jackie joined the Harlem Wizards (a team similar to the Globetrotters) and used his showman nature to became an entertainer rather than a competitive player. We don't see him overcoming his substance abuse and depression -- central to his achievement of joining the Harlem Wizards -- instead we see him overcoming a more accomplished guy from the neighborhood. It's a win that feels more like revenge than triumph.