Reviews

'The Announcement' Recalls Magic Johnson's Moment, and Cookie's Too

Cookie Johnson's poise and good sense stand in contrast to those interviewees who were fearful friends of Magic back then, who worried about how to act and what to say.

The Announcement

Director: Nelson George
Cast: Magic Johnson, Cookie Johnson, Pat Riley, James Worthy, Chris Rock, Arsenio Hall, Gary Vitti, Lon Rosen, Karl Malone, David Stern
Rated: NR
Studio: ESPN Films
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-03-11 (ESPN)
Website
Trailer

"We kind of fit," says Cookie Johnson of her first meeting with Magic. Looking back on their courtship at Michigan State, she tells a remarkable story, about a former boyfriend who didn't want her to go to that school precisely because he was worried she'd meet Magic Johnson, the superstar point guard for the Spartans. At the time, she'd never even heard of him, and so she laughed and reassured the boyfriend there was no risk.

Cookie's relationship with Magic went through ups and downs, as recounted by The Announcement, premiering 11 March on ESPN. As its title indicates, Nelson George's documentary is focused on Magic's announcement that he was HIV positive. By the time he stood before reporters on 7 November 1991, Magic and Cookie both knew that she was negative, as was the child she was carrying. They also knew that she was committed to the marriage. She remembers him saying, "I can understand if you want to leave me." She also remembers her response: "Are you kidding me?"

Today, Magic says that if she had left him then, he would have died, "I wouldn't be here right now." In photo after photo, and TV footage too, they do indeed look perfectly matched, both possessed of brilliant smiles and both strong, self-confident personalities. But even as they look like they "kind of fit," the film underlines their differences too. As Magic phrases it, "I loved being around people, she was more private." He was also, he says, committed to the team: "We were all about winning," by way of describing his commitment to basketball. Looking back, he says this commitment meant he couldn't get married; he even broke off wedding plans in 1985. "It takes all of me," he says, "It's a lot of energy that goes into winning a championship." The documentary suggests this energy took some particular and familiar forms, with interviewees recalling the legendary post-game parties at LA's Forum Club. Being committed to his game, Magic didn't drink or smoke, he says. "But there were lots of other things out there to tempt me," things he then called "big fun."

These temptations, of course, were early on demonized in Magic's story. As Sally Jenkins wrote in 1991, the common construal was that "Women gave him the AIDS virus." Jenkins goes on to counter this narrative, arguing that in spite of the accolades then heaped on him for coming out as positive, that he was "model of courage," that his making "sport of women," like so many male celebrities in sports and elsewhere, only meant that he took advantage and made countless errors in judgment.

Today, the urge to blame those infected with HIV for their condition is surely less prevalent. But back then, it was crucial that Cookie stay with Magic -- for his own health as well as the story that he went on to embody. He insists even now that the diagnosis was "My problem, my fault and I wanted only me to deal with it, I didn’t want my foolish attitude and the way I conducted myself to have to affect Cookie." No matter his desire, every aspect of his being positive has affected and continues to affect Cookie, as well as their children. Cookie married Magic in 1991, the same year as the announcement; she explains now that there was no way to know when he became infected: "It could have been 10 years ago, who knows?", she says, "There's no way to prove it, so why drive yourself crazy? I just focused on what was in front of me."

Her poise and good sense stand in contrast to who were fearful back then, who worried how they felt, believing Magic would be dead just months after the announcement. Charles Barkley says it was like facing "somewhat the death of a brother," Riley appears at a game in New York, inviting "fans of Magic Johnson" to take a moment of silence. David Stern offers his own story of heroism, remembering how he insisted that the officially retired Magic be allowed to play at the '92 All Star Game. "I did have at least one owner suggest to me that we should do some polling," Stern says, "Because I was getting us too far out front." (The NBA -- and David Stern! -- out front: it's a striking notion, now.)

That Magic and Cookie chose to make their struggle public speaks not only to his character ("He looked me in the eye," says trainer Gary Vitti and said, "When God gave me this disease, he gave it to the right person"), but also to hers. After a couple of weeks where the Lakers' story was Magic's "flu-like symptoms," he decided to make his condition public. "He looked at me," Cookie says, "And he said, 'I have to save as many people's lives as I possibly can.'" Still, just after the announcement, retired from basketball, he lurched into an understandable depression, over what seemed, at the time, his imminent death, but also because of public prejudice against HIV, still associated with gays and drug users despite Ryan White's valiant public life.

"I wasn’t Magic," Magic remembers. "I was this guy who as just so devastated that he just gave up on life." Cookie remembers her own worry, and also her understanding of her husband. She remembers telling him, "You need to get up off the couch and go do something." His choices of action included more public appearances, as well as a brief tenure with President Bush's National Commission on AIDS. Deciding that this organization was "not doing enough" to fight the disease, he then committed himself to working through his own Magic Johnson Foundation, as well as the United Nations.

As the film -- sometimes with too much emphasis on a plink piano score -- focuses on the education offered by Magic and Cookie throughout those early years, it includes as well a prominent villain from back then, Karl Malone. Stern suggests he played the role as if out of "central casting," making public his concerns about playing with a briefly un-retired Magic, fearing contact on the court, contact that could include blood. "I don't regret saying it because it happened," says Malone now, describing himself as a "country bumpkin at the time."

Now, he knows more about how the virus is contracted and also, that fear and self-willed ignorance are profoundly unhelpful responses. Magic "allowed guys like me to be more educated about it," Malone says, "That’s special. I say he manned up." As The Announcement tells it, so did Cookie.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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