The great sports documentaries are the ones that manage to wed their game stories to the culture and politics of the times in which they were played.
HBO's Thrilla in Manila, which chronicles the epic rivalry between heavyweight boxers Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, is steeped in the racial and social class issues that separated the two men and fueled the famous 1975 showdown in the Philippines from which the film's title is drawn.
If Thrilla is not a great sports documentary, it's on the waiting list – only a half cut or so off the pace. Catch it. If not Saturday night in its premiere at 8, then in one of its many HBO replays: Sunday, Tuesday, Friday or April 19, 22 and 28.
There is an added treat for Baltimore and Maryland area viewers: Radio station WYPR newsman Sunni Khalid is featured as one of the talking heads in the documentary, and Khalid is on the money time and again in his analyses of the fighters and the post-1960's racial politics at play.
As the film carefully explains, even though both fighters are African American, they came to represent a racial divide that could no longer be ignored following the urban riots of 1968. Whereas Ali was backed by the nation of Islam, Frazier's backers were overwhelmingly white.
As narrator Leiv Schreiber says in the film, "Ali consistently used the politics of race to demean Joe Frazier."
The documentary shows Ali throwing gasoline on the fire by repeatedly branding Frazier with an ugly term used to describe a person of color who is subservient to whites. Both Frazier and his son are shown today describing how hurtful that was at the time.
Ali is also shown in the film over and over again comparing Frazier to a jungle beast and mocking him in press conferences by slapping around a rubber doll version of the animal. (I am purposely not using the terms because I think they are so offensive and politically charged -- even today.)
There is a moment of great talking-heads interface when Freddie Pacheco, who was Ali's ring doctor in 1975, says that Frazier acted like a child in taking offense to the Ali insults.
But the smug remarks by Pacheco, who is white, are followed by WYPR's Khalid, a person of color, firing back with a detailed explanation of how the remarks are viewed when leveled by one black person against another.
"For Freddie Pacheco to say what he says just shows how dumb he is about matters of race within the black race," Khalid says, taking the conversation to a level of insight, truth and possible confrontation too often avoided by on-screen experts.
One warning that I am sure some viewers will appreciate: The opening of the film includes some graphic images of a cock fight. I get the point that filmmaker John Dower is trying to make about the way these two men were pitted and stoked before going in the ring. And I also get the point about someone who will watch them fight being upset at seeing a rooster get torn apart. But the rooster has no choice, and these men did – no matter how constricted their choices might have been by racism and other sociological factors of the time.
I wish Dower had found another way to make his points, but there's room to argue the use of such gut-grabbing images either way. I suspect most of the audience members who will tune in this documentary tonight as prelude to a boxing bout featuring Winky Wright and Paul Williams will have no problems with seeing the roosters in mortal combat.
(Full disclosure: I have been doing media criticism at WYPR, the station for which Khalid works, the last six years.)