The burden of representation goes hand in hand with the burden of pioneering for black people in the United States. There’s always been an underlying pressure for black people to be and do better because we’ve always had to prove our worth against our counterparts (in the context of this review, white people). This, in turn, has forced certain figures throughout our history to be thrust into situations they never asked for nor wanted — to represent something much larger than themselves.
This conflict is one of the most compelling parts of Triumph, The Untold Story of Perry Wallace, a documentary centered around Perry Wallace, a black man who was the first to play basketball under an athletic scholarship in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) while attending Vanderbilt University from 1966 to 1970.
Using Wallace as the centerpiece, the film then provides a commentary on the racial tensions of the ’60s, with Wallace and his former black classmates speaking to the mistreatment they encountered at Vanderbilt. Viewers also get retrospective insight from Wallace’s white teammates and coaches, who offer poignant regrets on not doing more to support Wallace in the face of hostility and violence.
Director Rich Gentile does such a good job of commenting on the intersections of race and sports throughout the documentary, speaking to Sports Illustrated Senior Writer Alexander Wolff and former The Tennessean Senior Sports Writer and Columnist Jimmy Davy about what Wallace endured as an athlete, especially when he traveled to the Deep South for games.
“He was fully aware of what would happen when he played against the Deep South teams,” Davy says after recalling a time he talked with Wallace early in his college career.
Playing with the Vanderbilt Commodores, Wallace found himself back in the South, having to face the intense hatred of southern whites in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Along some of those games he had a confidant in Godfrey Dillard, the only other black player a part of the team. But throughout most of his four years with the Commodores, Wallace was by himself, enduring racial epithets and taunts whenever he stepped on a basketball court.
Wallace persevered, using his athleticism to make a point — that he was just as, if not more deserving to be on the court than his white counterparts. Inevitably, this angered white people. The film focuses on one such moment where a freshman Wallace dunked over a 6’9 University of Kentucky player. As Wallace ran back up court he saw an older man screaming near the Kentucky bench. That man ended up being longtime Kentucky head coach Adolph Rupp who was also a part the NCAA Rules Committee, which ended up banning the dunk from college basketball a year later.
Wallace wasn’t just pioneering on the court but off it too. At Vanderbilt he had become a voice for other black students and ultimately led a meeting with then-Chancellor Alexander Heard.
“That was the beginning of me being a full-fledged pioneer,” Wallace says.
Gentile successfully captures Wallace’s ambivalence in accepting his role as a pioneer, and how that ultimately shapes him for the remainder of his college career and beyond. The athlete’s climax comes in two games: one against the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in 1968 and the other against Mississippi State in 1970.
Both are triumphant in their own way but the former sets up the latter in the context of the film. Wallace arguably endures the most hostility he’s had to throughout his college career during this game, as he’s the first black basketball player to step on Ole Miss’ court. At one point he’s even elbowed in the face by a player on the opposite team, the attack blinding one of his eyes and making his nose bleed.
He takes a break from the game to recover, only to realize that not once has his teammates or coaches checked on him. In a dramatized scene that follows, viewers see Wallace walk down a tunnel back to the court by himself, audio of screams and taunts growing louder as he gets closer.
Gentile uses the poignancy of the scene to make Wallace’s win against Ole Miss that much more impactful, with the athlete ultimately helping his team get an 18-point win over their opponents (90-72). This only makes Wallace’s 1970 game that much more cathartic, as he dunked on Mississippi State at the end of the game, which the referees allowed.
Perry Wallace is so compelling not only for its journalistic focus but for treating a complex issue such as race with the depth it deserves. Viewers see how much Wallace endured mentally and physically as a pioneer, and how that ultimately strained his relationship with Vanderbilt until 2004.
It’s also beautifully shot, with everything from the colorful and wide shots of a present-day Vanderbilt to archival images and footage adding an additional layer to the film’s captivating imagery.
Like Jackie Robinson or Bill Russell, Wallace served a role that was bigger than himself but ultimately led to athletes such as Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley being able to be pioneers in their own right. Overall, Perry Wallace is a near-perfect documentary that equally distributes responsibility on narrative, sound, and imagery to tell a story of a pioneer who deserves to be known, even if he never wanted to be one in the first place.