The implication is that fun is what is ultimately being played for – that fun is freedom’s goal, the reason that liberty is desirable at all. Michael knows that if the Tunes succeed in having fun, they’ll be able to keep enslavement at bay – that is, whether they win against the Monstars or not. Fun, in other words, is transcendental; it’s what grants a person autonomy, and what distinguishes them from a performer “locked up . . . then trotted out to perform.”
* * *
It’s not enough to say that Space Jam has sold out. Yes, A New Legacy is a brazen cash-grab, a barefaced attempt on the studio’s behalf to capitalise on its back catalog with the help of some athlete celebrity. But so was the original, which only ever sought to make the Looney Tunes profitable again by touching them with some of Michael Jordan’s cool.
But the original was more than this. Space Jam “also offered,” explains David Jesuadson for the BBC, “something more profound – a defining moment for black representation in cinema”:
At the centre of this big-budget Hollywood animation was not just a black lead, but in Jordan, a black superstar, an icon, and an all-American family man. . . . Behind the camera, it was also notable for having an animation co-director, Bruce W. Smith, who was one of the few black animators working in Hollywood – something that is, depressingly, still the case today.1
“[W]ithin the context of Hollywood animated family films,” explains Jesuadson, “and their history of both racial erasure and racist stereotyping, it was ground-breaking.” Whatever the studio’s intention, the original Space Jam was itself the start of “A New Legacy” in cartooning.
Nor did Space Jam shy away from discussing race. When Michael Jordan tells Bill Murray that he wouldn’t be able to make the NBA, Bill responds, “It’s because I’m white isn’t it?” Michael is quick to dismiss his friend’s suspicions, replying, “No, Larry [Bird] is white – so what?” And Larry concurs, explaining to Bill that it’s simply because “You can’t jump.” But why can’t Bill Murray jump? The premise understood here is that White Men Can’t Jump (as Ron Shelton’s own basketball comedy was titled not four years earlier). Larry Bird is an exception (“not all white men, etc.”), but the rule itself is sound: in the US, top-level basketball is dominated by black players (who comprised 74.2% of the NBA in 2020). And this, moreover, is precisely what makes the Tunes’ attempt to learn the game so funny. Bugs shows his teammates a documentary film explaining the rules and regulations of basketball, but it’s hopelessly outdated. What makes it feel so quaint? Not only is the footage black and white, none of the players are black – they’re all white. For Space Jam, the idea of an all-Caucasian NBA is, well, simply Looney.
Besides Larry Bird, the other exception – the other white man who can jump in Space Jam – is Shawn Bradley. But there’s an important difference between him and the other players whom the aliens from Moron Mountain rob of their talents. On the psychiatrist’s couch, Shawn explains to the analyst, “I’ve got other skills – I could go back and work on the farm.” Basketball, then, was never his ticket out of poverty; on the contrary, it seems that his family owns land, and could find him gainful employment in agriculture. When Charles Barkley, by contrast, finds himself unable to play, he ends up wandering the streets of ghettoized neighbourhoods where black teens have nowhere to play except on underfunded, run-down courts. Space Jam doesn’t labour the point, but it certainly looks as though the game might be their only hope of escaping: they certainly won’t be able to “work on the farm,” for instance.
It isn’t insignificant, then, that the threat borne by the aliens is a version of slavery itself – the very institution whose legacy consists in systemic racism and intergenerational poverty, in ghettoized neighbourhoods where black teens have nowhere to play except on underfunded, run-down courts. There’s an uncomfortable moment when Bugs attempts to explain to Jordan how it might look if this threat is fulfilled:
You see these aliens come from outer space, and they make us slaves in their theme park . . . they’re talking about slavery! Then they’ll make us do stand-up comedy, the same jokes every night for all eternity. We’re gonna be locked up like wild animals and then trotted out to perform for a bunch of lowbrow, bug-eyed, fat-headed, humour-challenged aliens!
Of course, Bugs’s plea is not without humour. In a sense, “stand-up comedy, the same jokes every night for all eternity” is already the life of the Looney Tunes – who exist for our entertainment, and who are infinitely re-playable to that end. But Bugs’s plea is nevertheless disconcerting. Visualising himself as the aliens’ slave – i.e., standing with his ankles in chains, and gesticulating with his oversized, white, glove-like hands – Bugs bears a faint (albeit not explicit) resemblance to a blackface minstrel.2 What’s more, Bugs’s description of “slavery” is uncomfortably reminiscent of Michael Jordan’s experience as a professional basketball player: Michael, too, is “trotted out to perform” each night “for a bunch of lowbrow, bug-eyed, fat-headed, humour-challenged aliens.” Why does Michael decide – against Bugs’s heartfelt advice – to raise the stakes in the final quarter against the Monstars? Why does he agree to be enslaved if the Tune Squad lose? Perhaps he feels that he has long since lost his liberty.
And “why,” asks Julia Pimental in Complex, “does Michael Jordan tell his team to just ‘go out there and have fun’”?3 How can anyone have fun when their freedom is at stake? It pays to keep in mind, I think, that fun is the central currency of Space Jam: it’s because the customers of Moron Mountain are not having fun that Swackhammer decides to kidnap the Looney Tunes in the first place; and it’s only when the Tunes are given licence to “go out there and have fun” that they’re able to summon the power to prevent that kidnapping from occurring (this, I think, is what Michael means when he tells the Tunes “You guys had ‘the Special Stuff in you all along’” – the Special Stuff is the ability to have fun, which is what the Tunes possess in bucketloads). The implication is that fun is what is ultimately being played for – that fun is freedom’s goal, the reason that liberty is desirable at all. Michael knows that if the Tunes succeed in having fun, they’ll be able to keep enslavement at bay – that is, whether they win against the Monstars or not. Fun, in other words, is transcendental; it’s what grants a person autonomy, and what distinguishes them from a performer “locked up . . . then trotted out to perform.” And only the Looney Tunes can help Michael Jordan to find that fun again in basketball.
* * *
Space Jam: A New Legacy is directed by Malcolm Lee, boasts Ryan Coogler among its producers, and features an almost all-black live-action cast. “The result,” writes Jesuadson,
is a sequel that . . . handles race with a deft touch. Meanwhile its characterisation of James’s protagonist is more nuanced than Jordan’s driven sportsman. He’s shown to be a secret “nerd” who regrets repressing his childhood love for Game Boys and adores Harry Potter.
What’s more, A New Legacy explores more directly the idea that basketball represents, for many black teens, if not a viable means then at least a hope of escaping intergenerational poverty and life in ghettoized neighbourhoods. In the film’s opening lines, LeBron James’s mother discreetly explains that her working conditions won’t allow her to watch her son’s game:
Shanice James: All right. My shift’s not over till 9:00. So tell Coach C I’m gonna be a few minutes late picking you up, okay?
Shortly afterward, Coach C chides LeBron for playing on a Game Boy, explaining that he might have the ability to change those very conditions:
Coach C: Listen, you’re the best basketball player I ever coached. You could be a once-in-a-generation talent if you focus on the game of basketball and not these distractions. You can’t be great without putting in work, right? You got the chance to use basketball to change everything. For your mom, for you, for everybody who you care about. You want that?
But A New Legacy is not just another rags-to-riches, ghetto-to-stardom story. Instead, it’s concerned with the price of this trajectory – with the pain incurred by those whose lives adhere to it, and, particularly, by the others who have to live with them. LeBron’s blinkered refusal of videogame “distractions” might have lifted his family’s standing, but now it suffocates his youngest son, Dom – a talented game developer (with only a passing interest in IRL basketball) who turns, accordingly, to the studio’s rogue AI, Al G Rhythm, for paternal recognition. It is, in other words, a discussion of intergenerational trauma, a depiction of the subtler tolls that slavery’s legacy takes on those who seem so far removed from it. Yes, the film is a brazen cash grab, but it is also one that dares to imagine the end of this trauma and the beginning of, well, A New Legacy.
Curiously, fun is the central currency of this film as well. When Dom misses a trick shot on the court, he explains to his father, “We having fun.” Of course, LeBron won’t take a bar of it, insisting, “Everything in between these four lines is work.” So Dom introduces his father to his own idea of work – a videogame that he’s developed from scratch, explaining, “You just play for fun. Remember fun, Dad?” The same phrase reappears when LeBron points out at the Looney Tunes practice that they aren’t playing “real basketball”; Bugs replies, “You’re right. But it’s fun! You remember fun, don’t you, Doc?” And in case we haven’t got the point, Al G Rhythm chides his team in terms directly reminiscent of LeBron’s earlier dismissal of Dom’s trick shot:
Everybody happy, huh? Everybody having a good time? Yeah? You having a lot of fun out there? ’Cause that’s all that matters, right? Is that you’re having fun. [Yelling] That doesn’t matter at all! What matters is that I win this [bleep] game!
It’s this address, moreover, that prompts Dom to abandon Al G Rhythm and to join his father’s team: Dom has realized that Al G cared nothing for fun in the first place, and is every bit as suffocating, therefore, as his blinkered father.
It’d be easy to dismiss this thirst for fun as a puerile pursuit – to dismiss Dom as a version of the alien brat in the first Space Jam who insisted that Moron Mountain “stinks.” But it pays to keep in mind, I think, what fun means to this franchise. What Dom desires is not fun itself but the autonomy it guarantees – without which the freedoms that his father has won – the court at home, the time to play with his sons, the ability to keep his mother off the late shift – might start to feel oppressive in themselves.
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film’s official YouTube trailers and clips.
- David Jesuadson, “Space Jam 2: Has Hollywood Animation Woken Up to Racism?” https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210715-has-hollywood-animation-truly-left-racism-behind [↩]
- For more on the influence of the minstrel show on American cartoons, see Estelle Caswell, “Why Cartoon Characters Wear Gloves.” https://www.vox.com/videos/2017/2/2/14483952/why-old-cartoons-mickey-mouse-wear-gloves [↩]
- Julia Pimental, “Space Jam” Reviewed by a Millennial Who Has Somehow Never Seen It Before.” https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2016/11/a-millenial-watches-space-jam [↩]