HBO’s Tiger Woods Series by Two White Directors Draws Backlash

A backlash over the upcoming docuseries centers on the unique importance of how documentaries choose who should tell which stories.

When HBO Sports announced upcoming docuseries “Tiger,” controversy followed. The problem didn’t lie in the sometimes-tabloid story of champion golfer Tiger Woods, but in its telling: The directors are two white men, Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek, who previously collaborated on the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land.”

HBO dropped the production’s introductory press release July 9, in the middle of a summer marked by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, nationwide protests, and Black Lives Matter. A community of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) documentary filmmakers responded to “Tiger” as one more film in a series that never seems to end: a story of Black people told by white men. And this time, they would not allow their voices to remain on the margins.

When Heineman announced the film on Facebook July 10 (“Our goal was to dive deeper and create an unflinching and intimate portrait of a man…”), he swiftly received a half-dozen effusive replies. (“Congrats!!!” “Excited!”) And then, there was a pointed question from Indian documentary director and editor Geeta Gandbhir.

Hey Matt Heineman! This is a great project. I said this to [co-director] Matthew Hamachek as well, and feel compelled to ask you — in the spirit of being anti racist — why did you both, two white men opt to direct this film? Is Sam [Pollard] the only black person who is above the line? I want to make you aware of the asks from the black and brown community – as you have a huge platform, and the whole community needs to grapple with the issue of systemic racism in our community. Why was there not a director reflective of the community on this project? If there were two of you, couldn’t ONE of you have been Black or Asian? Accountability and leadership are needed at this time – you are in a great position to be a positive example.

With that, more than 200 comments followed — all of which focused not on the docuseries itself, but on why two white men were the ones to tell Woods’ story.

Geeta Gandbhir

Geeta Gandbhir

Geeta Gandbhir

“I kicked the hornet nest,” Gandbhir told IndieWire. “Yeah, but the hornet nest has definitely been growing on sort of the front porch of the white establishment for an extremely long time. … They have been working around this system, which is ultimately a white supremacist, anti-black system, forever. You have folks who have been managing to make incredible work despite the lack of access, which speaks to the resilience, bravery, and strength of the community. But we’re at a point where we can no longer tolerate this sort of white-dominant culture constantly appropriating our stories. That’s what this outcry is about.”

“Tiger” began when Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Prods. optioned Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s best-selling biography, “Tiger Woods,” shortly after its publication in March 2018. Hamachek — a veteran documentary editor and a passionate golfer — pursued Gibney for the directing job; impressed with Hamachek’s take, Gibney hired him. However, this would be Hamachek’s first time to direct; Heineman would later join as co-director.

Gibney has directed nearly 50 documentaries; in 2014, these included “Finding Fela,” a portrait of Nigerian singer Fela Kuti released by Kino Lorber, and HBO’s “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” a look at the soul singer’s career. (Gandbhir served as that film’s editor.) Neither production, he said, saw any backlash — but he doesn’t dismiss the dissent that’s facing “Tiger.”

“There is a lot of anger and a lot of frustration, and I understand it,” Gibney said. “When you’re putting together a team for a series like this, there are a lot of things you have to consider. We can do better in terms of figuring out how to hire in a way that benefits the film and is also encouraging diversity in a very profound way. I learned something important about how to go forward and reckon with these issues … and also how to have more tough conversations early on rather than later.”

Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney

Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

Gibney also reached out to Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Pollard (“4 Little Girls”). “I felt strongly that we should bring on Sam Pollard as an executive producer,” he said. “Sam and I worked with each other over many years going back to the early 2000s, when we were both on a series executive produced by [Martin] Scorsese called ‘The Blues.’ I thought it was important for Sam to be on for a couple of reasons; Hamachek in particular agreed. Sam is a very prominent African American filmmaker, but also he’s a person who is a former editor who made the transition to directing.”

Pollard, a veteran filmmaker who began his directing career with the 1990 Oscar-nominated civil rights documentary and PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” said that the argument for Black people telling their own stories has been a cornerstone of his career. He told IndieWire that he remembers hearing that advice early on from a mentor, renowned African American documentarian St. Clair Bourne.

“When I was a 30-year-old young man as an African-American, [Bourne] said, ‘One of the things that’s pulling, is sourcing all of our stories to tell our own stories because if we don’t, who will?’,” said Pollard. “But this thing that I’ve also done, as a filmmaker, also this factors why I’m here, I support not only Black filmmakers, and Asian filmmakers, and Latinx filmmakers, I also support white filmmakers. And even if a white filmmaker was doing a story about our people, as long as I think they are sincere, and have something to say, I will support it. I’m not going to say that they shouldn’t tell our stories, but the challenge is, it’s the gatekeepers, the people who alone provide the money, who give out this money into these productions, they tend to give it to white filmmakers.”

Later, Pollard called back. He had something to add: “In retrospect,” he said, “I should have asked that a filmmaker of color be included as part of the team.”

Marjan Safinia

Marjan Safinia

Marjan Safinia

Through a representative, Heineman declined an interview request. However, he did respond at length to the voices on his Facebook post, acknowledging that he wanted to “improve an unjust and inequitable system (that I have both profited from and been a part of perpetuating). … My privilege has opened doors, and I also understand that my privilege affects my storytelling perspective. I must actively prioritize inclusion of other perspectives in the projects that I undertake. In that vein, I absolutely should have done more to diversify our ‘Tiger’ crew.”

Marjan Safinia recently co-directed the POV series “And She Could Be Next,” which tracks several women of color’s political campaigns. Like Pollard, she knows that conversations around issues of race and authorship are all too familiar. She sees the revived public outcries against racism as encouraging, but inadequate if they don’t create structural change.

“They are not new discussions among filmmakers of color,” she said. “It just rarely passes over the veil into the public sphere. Everyone has a BLM statement now. But changing your action is what is most valuable. So what we want is to make sure that every sector, all the way up to the buyers and the big distributors, understands that each of them has a role to play in systemic change, in the service of the racial justice which they claim to hold dear. Your boardroom, your staff room, etc., all need to look like America, because America looks very different than it looked 40 years ago.”

Filmmaker and critic Farihah Zaman pointed out that if more people of color occupy more seats of power, the conversation has the power to change. “In that kind of setting, culturally sensitive questions are more likely to be asked, like, ‘Why you are telling this story, and what put you in a position to be able to tell this story about people with whom you don’t share a background or identity?’ So, open discussion and being willing to accept criticism, and having the balls to do it in a public setting, is something I’d really like to see.”

According to the International Documentary Association’s most recent State of the Documentary Field report, new documentary professionals are more racially and ethnically diverse than ever. Professionals entering and/or newer to the documentary field over the last 15 years, are significantly more likely (69 percent) to be members of racial and ethnic minority groups. However, high-profile projects like the HBO Tiger Woods docuseries are less likely to feature underrepresented directors at the helm.

Iyabo Boyd

Iyabo Boyd

Nicholas Weissman

“With so many white men being tapped to make documentaries around COVID, and then George Floyd being killed, it was frustrating for us to see that people of color were going to be, once again, overlooked for the opportunities to tell these stories of our time, of our people,” said Iyabo Boyd, founder of Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a five-year-old organization with more than 4,000 worldwide members that advocates for women of color in the documentary space. “Everyone can’t take it anymore. And so, even though many of our filmmakers are at risk for COVID, a lot of them are still willing to be out in the field, because they just really want to ensure that these stories are not only going to be told by white men.”

She expressed exasperation over “Tiger,” saying that Jigsaw and HBO “should know better.”

“We have made ourselves available to all of them for years,” Boyd said. “We’ve actually done collaborations with HBO. So they know we exist. It’s about trying to get them to understand how they are part of this bigger system of barriers and discrimination.”

There has been some progress, certainly: In 2010, Roger Ross Williams became the first African American to win a directing Oscar for his short film “Music By Prudence,” and his 2016 documentary feature “Life, Animated” received an Oscar nomination. (He lost to another Black director, Ezra Edelman, for “O.J.: Made In America.”) Emmy-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson recently told the New York Times that, in the face of the recent racial outcries, his phone has been “ringing off the hook.”

However, those boldface names also can be something of an optical illusion. Dawn Porter, who recently produced “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and is currently directing an untitled documentary for Focus Features about former chief official White House photographer Pete Souza, acknowledged this dilemma.

“The problem is we need more people to be telling stories and getting green lights,” she said. “What I think most of us would say is that, we can’t do all the jobs, we don’t want to do all the jobs, and we shouldn’t do all the jobs. There are so many more people who should be thought of and resourced.”

Farihah Zaman

Farihah Zaman

Danelle Eliav

Gibney acknowledged that while the “Tiger” blowback has been “not particularly pleasant,” his company can “do better about being an engine of change in the future,” adding: “The conversations that have been taking place have been valuable, productive and useful. So in a broader sense, while it’s a difficult moment, I think that it’s engendered a very kind of positive sense of some powerful solutions going forward.”

Toward that end, Gibney said he wants to create an opportunity that addresses what he calls “credentialism” — i.e., no one will hire you without credits, and you can’t earn credits until you’ve been hired. “Something that I hope to be able to start is to help create a pipeline of lower-budget films that would give new filmmakers a chance to do something as directors, as writers, as producers,” he said. “The production companies and distributors have to commit to broadcasting and to surrounding the filmmakers with talent. That, I think, would offer some opportunities for access that currently isn’t there and that can be built upon.”

It remains to be seen how that pipeline could come together, but the pressure for a solution is unrelenting. For her part, Gandbhir isn’t interested in cancel culture; she just wants results.

“I think what I did was frame a question to the directors of this film,” she said. “The ask is, again, just to reflect, to reflect and take concrete action and to actually be the allies that you otherwise profess to be. You know? To truly be the allies you profess to be.”

And ultimately, creating that circumstance may be more than resolving credentialism, or even creating a new power infrastructure that gives greater opportunities to BIPOC voices. It could require deconstructing the nature of documentary itself.

“The documentary is historically a colonial exercise, and it always has been, by nature,” said Gandbhir. “It started with folks of European descent going into communities that were not theirs, and telling their stories with a certain white lens. So we are asking to decolonize the doc. And in doing that, both sides would benefit tremendously — when there is truly an equitable and inclusive industry.”

The two-part docuseries “Tiger” will air December 13 and December 20 on HBO. 

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