Space Jam: What It Means 20-Years On

Normally when we critically reappraise a film, it’s because someone like Ridley Scott has just released a fresh director’s cut, Das Boot has gotten an extended blu-ray edition or a new studio remake of The Wicker Man has been announced and we need to go back and point out exactly why that such a fucking horrible idea. Today, however, we do it because it’s been twenty-years since the release of seminal sports film Space Jam, a picture in which Michael Jordan is teamed up with the Looney Toons to defeat a group of aliens (who’ve stolen the talent of five NBA players) and stop them from taking the cartoons prisoner on their miserable theme park planet — Moron Mountain — owned by a fat old green monster called Swackhammer, who wears an ill-fitting purple suit and does nothing but smoke cigars and bully his employees. Regardless, what the film represented was as important as the plot is stupid, which is something we’ll get on to.

Produced by the great Ivan Reitman, starring Billy Murray and Wayne Knight with Danny DeVito lending his voice work, the film wasn’t short of Hollywood backing, with Warner Brothers knowing an untapped oil reserve when they see one. Based on the back of an advert in which Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny played basketball against Marvin the Martian, the film went on to make $230-million worldwide from an $80-million budget, making it the third highest grossing sports film of all-time, just behind The Blind Side and Rocky IV. A children’s film — obviously — the film carries the message of not allowing yourself to change to please other people and being happy in your own skin (the tiny aliens become bigger aliens to make their boss happy, before reshaping him in to a rocket, blasting him interstellar and returning to their original size) which is fair enough.

Here though, is the thing: go and google for a list of the most popular kids films from the 90s and come back to be. What you’ll see is a shit load of white kids, cute animals, and white kids with cute animals. What you won’t see is diversity. Apart from Mulan, Aladdin and Space Jam, you’ve got a plethora of films that look like Steve Bannon has personally gone through and cast the lead, which would be funnier if it wasn’t so desperately scary. While it was nice of Disney to give us a little variety in their output from the decade, neither Mulan nor Aladdin is quite the cultural celebration that Space Jam became. The biggest black star on the planet headlining his own film, a predominantly black sport taking centre stage and a soundtrack littered with r’n’b and rap didn’t really feel like a big thing to the four or five-year-old me at the time, but it was.

Basketball isn’t really a think in England, the knowledge and awareness of the NBA is improving, but as a general rule, most people tend not to care. Michael Jordan, however, transcended the sport, and even as a child in the 90s, I knew who he was, knew of his greatness and was drawn in by that aura that has sucked so many in before and since. To see him on the big screen alongside Bugs, Daffy, Lola and the crew legitimised his existence in a way that I hadn’t thought of previously. This was the first time I’d likely seen a black man elevated in such a manner, given such status and presented to me a cultural icon, and on some level, that resonated like few things had previously. Over the next few years, I amassed Michael Jordan jerseys that my parents brought back from work trips to America, a Space Jam towel that, truth be told, I only stopped using within the last couple of years because it had become more hole than towel.

Space Jam was a gateway in to sneaker culture, with a plot point centred around collecting a pair of Jordan’s from MJs house so that he could play — to this day, I still want to own that pair of trainers (seriously Nike, please sort me out). It was a basketball education for people who’d never been exposed to the game before, with Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Shawn Bradley and Larry Johnson all making extended cameos, showing off their talent — before having it stolen by aliens — and winning over the hearts and minds of people who wouldn’t have known they existed otherwise. The soundtrack — what with Seal and Brandy, B Real, Busta Rhymes, Coolio, LL Cool J and Method Man coming together on Hit ’Em High as The MonSTARS and R Kelly smashing his way to two GRAMMYs with I Believe I Can Fly — offered accessible hip-hop to a generation not yet old enough to embrace it, but still hear it young enough to get hooked.

We didn’t get Blue Chips, Hoop Dreams or Kazaam (thankfully) in England, and it’d be another few years before Remember The Titans would come along and tear our hearts from our chests, so Space Jam wasn’t just about being enjoyable, it was necessary. It meant more than Rocky, it was far closer to home than The Karate Kid, it wasn’t a pastiche like Cool Runnings and it was actually aimed at kids, unlike Raging Bull, or the like. We often have discussions in sport about the lack of diversity within certain games, British Asians in football often high up the agenda, and the lack representation, role models and precedent are often rightfully considered. That isn’t an issue in basketball though, is it? You’ve got a generation of players now who grew up wanting to be like Mike, with minority excellence hardly a problem when the most marketable faces in your sport belong to LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

This week of all weeks, being able to look back and point to a film that took a sport and sold it around the world on the back of a black man, giving him more money and fame than one could imagine, is far from a bad thing. To this day, I watch the NBA because it pushes buttons inside me other sports don’t, and Space Jam was a catalyst. Was it essentially a marketing exercise to get children to beg their parents for merchandise, whatever benefitted from product placement and push the popularity of the NBA and Michael Jordan as a brand? Of course it was — but that doesn’t mean that in doing so they didn’t accidentally spark an entire generation in to engaging with a culture that hadn’t been offered to them previously. Race and pop culture have an uneasy relationship, just as race and sport does — for every Kanye West there’s a Colin Kaepernick, every Beyonce a Serena Williams — and it took something as simple and downright absurd as Space Jam to bridge that gap without alienating anybody from its audience, while bringing those in from the cold that had otherwise been a secondary concern.

There comes a time in the young life of all people of colour where the penny drops, and we have to confront the fact that we’re not white, and the package deal that brings with it. Rarely though, as kids, are we given the superstars and role models to look up that proves that what we know about ourselves isn’t a hurdle that can’t be beaten, but just another minor bump along the long road that is our lives. It’s getting better, obviously, with Dwayne Johnson the biggest screen presence per-dollar, the mainstream appeal of counter culture and rap, the acceptance of outsider influence and minority interests, but none of that will go away overnight. Without a film like Space Jam, there’s every possibility that, even subconsciously, my race would’ve played a far bigger part in my mind than it ever did. It had the effect on me — and so many others like me — that videos of Stormzy and Paul Pogba skanking in tracksuits must have on kids now, even if it might take them two decades to fully realise the seed it planted in the back of their minds.

Space Jam is a film in which Michael Jordan is sucked through a hole on a golf course, Bugs Bunny has a love interest most humans fancy, cartoons take a placebo performance enhancer, Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam directly pay homage to Pulp Fiction, the Round Mound of Rebound jokes about dating Madonna while praying, and the whole thing ends with a dunked buzzer-beater from half-court. As a children’s film, it still stands up, even if the live action cartoon technology hasn’t aged as well as it might’ve done. As an unintended act of social commentary and provider of hope, it’s taken until now, twenty-years down the line for the children who watched that film in the cinema upon release to grow old enough to write a piece like this for that to be fully realised. On both fronts, we should be thankful — I give mine on behalf of my inner-child that got to see it first.

by Raj Bains