SXSW Film Review: Clemente

Baseball doc shines a light on a small-market superstar

credit: Les Banos

Although Jackie Robinson officially integrated baseball in 1947, many Black and Latin American players would face their own uphill battles in the years to come. Clemente shines a light on one such player: Roberto Clemente, the first Puerto Rican superstar.

After joining the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s, Roberto Clemente would define baseball in the region for nearly two decades to come. Clemente offers an in-depth examination of Clemente as both athlete and man, weaving together archival footage and contemporary interviews with teammates and family members. Known for his excellent bat control and a world-class glove in right field, the story of how Clemente went from a Winter League hopeful to a two-time world champion is one of baseball’s more interesting stories.

From his early years in Puerto Rico to his tragic death after the 1972 season, the film sets out to cover a lot of ground. Much of the film relies on secondhand accounts of Clemente from his teammates and friends, offering some insight into a player that – by the documentary’s own admission – was often deemed inscrutable by his contemporaries. The film shines brightest when director David Altrogge digs deep into those contemporary experiences. In one memorable sequence, we learn how Clemente’s reputation was shaped by sportswriters who made fun of his English by quoting him phonetically in local coverage – a disrespect that Clemente himself would seemingly never forgive.

But because so much of the film is talking heads, Clemente also leaves behind the suspicion – stronger even than in other documentaries about professional athletes – that there is more to the story than what we see onscreen. Clemente’s career spans a transitional period in American history; he enlisted in the Marines in the decade after World War II but played long enough to be the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Pick any year of his career and there’s probably more than enough material to produce a feature-length documentary about the challenges Clemente faced as a Black and Latin American ballplayer in a violently changing society.

Then again, not every story about race must be framed as a tragedy, and the film goes to great lengths to center its narrative on Clemente’s service as a bridge between Puerto Rico and Major League Baseball. Clemente is about a humanitarian as much as it is about a professional athlete, and the film allows one of baseball’s brightest stars to step out of the shadows cast by more-famous contemporaries like Hank Aaron. Clemente may have been a small-market superstar, but he is also the rare ballplayer whose personal life deserves just as much onscreen attention as his on-field accomplishments.


Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere

Thursday, March 14, 11am, Stateside Theatre

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