For over 40 years, Nelson George has been one of the preeminent documentarians of Black culture. A prolific author, he has written 15 non-fiction books, including the bestseller The Michael Jackson Story; Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball; Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies and Hip Hop America, Post-Soul Nation, co-authored The James Brown Reader with Alan Leeds.
As a filmmaker, George has co-written screenplays for classic films such as Strictly Business and CB4. He directed and co-wrote the HBO film Life Support, starring Queen Latifah for which she earned a Golden Globe. He was a producer on Netflix's The Black Godfather, an award-winning documentary on Clarence Avant, and on the hip-hop-inspired series The Get Down.
HBO’s Say Hey, George's latest documentary explores the life and career of baseball legend Willie Mays, who is now 91-years old. The film is a celebration of the icon's charismatic style of play; it chronicles his rise from playing in the Negro Leagues to becoming one of the biggest Black celebrities in America during the civil rights era.
EBONY caught up with George and spoke about Mays' influence on baseball, what he considers the "Black Athletic Aesthetic" and how our people use music to tell stories.
EBONY: What kind of impact did Mays have on you growing up?
Nelson George: Before Ali became Ali, Mays was the biggest Black athlete in the country. He was bigger than Wilt Chamberlain, bigger than Bill Russell, and bigger than Jim Brown because baseball was the most popular sport and he played in New York, the media capital of the world. He was the guy. I've written about music and culture but Willie, simply by doing the "basket catch," revolutionized baseball. No one did it before and no one does it now. You know why? Because it's hard as hell. If you play baseball, you know how hard it is to get the ball from up in the air and try to catch it at your waist. That's a good example of what I call “the Black Athletic Aesthetic.” When we enter a sport, we change it by adding a unique flavor to it. The “basket catch” was such a radical idea at the time and it put flair and style into the game. It was about entertaining the crowd. Willie used to keep his hat a little tight, so it would fly off when he ran the bases. Almost all those details are for entertainment. He definitely was someone who is very steeped in the idea of “Black flair.” I think his contribution is important because baseball is no longer the central sport for Black people.
Eventually, players like Jackie Robinson, and later Mays, were brought up to the Major League which would end the Negro Leagues. In your estimation, was there any way the Negro Leagues could have survived as partners with MLB?
No. Baseball was barely ready to have Jackie. Later, I think the owners of the Birmingham Barons got paid a little something but not anything commensurate with the talent they had. I think one of the things in the film that's striking for me is that everybody knows about Jackie being the first Black person in the Major League but almost every of the great Black players was the first Black player either in their league or in the minor leagues on their team. Willie was the first Black player on the Minneapolis Millers minor league team. All the players went through a Jackie Robinson situation in these little towns. Willie talks a bit in the film about what he went through but I never thought about that before. If they were lucky, they brought in two brothers to play so they could be roommates.
During his career, Mays was not as outspoken about racism in America as some of his contemporaries. You highlighted an instance where he faced housing discrimination in San Francisco, which some consider to be a progressive place. Why was that important for you to add to the documentary?
Willie is someone who doesn't talk about racism much; but on this occasion, he put his foot down about the house and wouldn't back down. When he couldn’t purchase the house that he wanted, the mayor of San Francisco at that time said that Mays and his family could live with him because he knew this was a big stain on the city. When push came to shove, he wasn't someone who was overtly activist. I think that's something we talked about in the doc but it was not unusual for his generation like the Ernie Banks' of the world. He contributed to Black causes with his financial donations.
Mays was at this pivot point much like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sidney Poiter. He becomes a huge crossover star in the early 60s before the word "crossover" even existed. He made white people comfortable and then all of a sudden the Black Power Movement is happening. From 1968 to 1972, he took a lot of criticism for not being more vocal about the social issues that Black people fighting for. But over time, his excellence prevailed because he was just so damn good at what he did.
What makes the film so compelling is your use of music. It fits perfectly. There is not a better song than Jr. Walker and the All-Star's “Shotgun” to describe Mays’ play on the field. How important was the music to the documentary?
I liked using “Shotgun”. We also used "Mannish Boy” for his time in the Negro Leagues. We found “Drop Me Off in Harlem” by Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Of course, there’s “Say Hey, Willie Mays.” But getting Chuck D to do the closing song was great because he’s such a huge baseball fan. I reached out to him a year ago and after a while, he hit me back on Twitter and I was like, “Oh sh*t!” He was incredible. One of the things that was fun about the doc was creating and telling the story of Mays' life and career by using music to drive it. It’s not just people talking in the doc—the use of music gives it a rhythm.
In the doc, you interviewed Barry Bonds who is a godson of Mays. How did you get him to participate in the film?
Barry Bonds was amazing. We shot his part at Willie’s 90th birthday party. He wanted to do it but who’s had a worst time with the press over the last 25 years than Barry Bonds? Getting him on board took a lot of negotiation. I have to thank HBO and LeBron’s company SpringHill, who handled most of the conversations with his representatives. When he finally got there, he was very, very clear about what he wanted to do. He wanted to talk about Willie Mays and what he meant to him. A lot of people will see Barry Bonds as they've never seen him before. He was honorable and humble as he paid tribute to his forebearers, his father and his godfather. When I brought up the speech that Willie gave when the San Franciso Giants retired Bonds’ number 25, he got super emotional. I think that’s the essence of who Barry Bonds is. It was crucial for us to get Bonds because of how he and Willie feel about each other.
Lastly, what do you want baseball fanatics and more casual fans to take away from the film?
Willie Mays is in the top five of all the greatest Black athletes in American history. He was the most dominant baseball player when baseball was the biggest sport in the country. Unlike Babe Ruth, he competed professionally against the best white, Latino and Black players of his day. He's the most dominant player of the 60s with some of the greatest pitchers ever and he put up huge numbers. He was also the best defensive player of his era, and maybe the greatest defensive player of all time. Hank Aaron may have hit more home runs but he wasn't a better defensive player than Mays.
When I interviewed Willie, one of the phrases that kept coming back, was "take care." He said Bill Greeson and Piper Davis took care of me. When I got to New York Leo Durocher took care of me. When I got to San Francisco, I took care of Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Bobby Bonds and Barry Bonds. A huge part of his legacy is the idea of mentorship and I realized that's what the film is about.
Say Hey is currently available to stream on HBO Max.