This weekend — a quarter-century later, as every millennial reading this will cringe to know — Warner Bros. published its sequel, “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” Seemingly, they’re alike in almost every way: equally inadequate, followed by a slew of merchandising tie-ins, Michael Jordan neatly replaced by his basketball successor LeBron James. The central distinctions are superficial, with the time shown in both the new film’s video-game-quality CG animation and a slew of updated cultural citations and cameos.
However, to anyone paying attention to the world outside, they’re completely different in one important way. The original “Space Jam,” rude as it may have been, was harmless ‘90s fluff. Its successor, arriving in 2021, edges on a moral affront.
Over the past decade, the NBA has become the world’s most aggressively activist major sports organization. Its players have stumped for voting access, put the phrase “Black Lives Matter” on NBA courts, and nearly boycotted last year’s playoffs en masse amid the protests over the murder of George Floyd. It has been a dramatic and socially significant evolution from the days of Jordan, the famously apolitical uber-jock who once quipped that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
So to watch James in 2021, the league’s standard-bearer both as a player and political activist, traipse through the sealed-off virtual landscape of “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” it’s impossible to think of anything but what the league and its players aren’t saying. The film is carefully neutered to appeal to an apolitical global cinematic marketplace dominated by China. You spend 115 minutes not recalling the lightweight delights of the 1990s, but of the moment in 2019 when NBA front-office guru Daryl Morey expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, and a clearly peeved James slapped him down, accusing him of harming NBA players “financially… physically.
Emotionally. Spiritually,” saying “we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”
Less than two years later, it’s Hong Kong, rather than the NBA’s revenue stream, that seems to have taken the brunt of the “negative.” The once-vibrant democracy is now largely under Beijing’s boot while the NBA continues to earn billions of dollars in China, its stars separating up profitable endorsements amid rampant human rights abuses.