Director Randy Wilkins on Getting Spike Lee’s Blessing to Tell the Story of New York Yankees Great Derek Jeter – Deadline
Randy Wilkins connects with Derek Jeter, subject of his seven-part ESPN documentary series, The captainat a few levels.
For starters, Wilkins is a lifelong New York Yankees fan, and Jeter was the linchpin of the team’s five World Series championships between 1996 and 2009. In his filmmaking career, Wilkins can also s ‘identify. Although he wasn’t a teenager like Jeter when he got his big break, getting the chance to tell his hero’s story resulted from a surprise endorsement from Spike Lee, who is an executive producer on the series.
“In June 2020 he called me to check on me,” Wilkins recalled in an interview. “He asked me who my favorite Yankee was, just out of the blue. I said, ‘Well, Derek Jeter.’ I was very confused as to why he was asking me that and the next thing he said was, ‘Derek Jeter wants to do a documentary and I’m offering you to do it.’ telephone.
While Jeter had wanted Lee to direct, the filmmaker was juggling a few other projects, so he decided to steer Jeter towards his protege, who had once been his film student at NYU before rising through the editorial staff of several Lee projects. . Most recently, he was editor of the Netflix series She must have it and director of the first episode of Expensive … for Apple TV+, which focused on the impact of Lee’s 1987 film School amazement.
ESPN, through its flagship 30 for 30 franchise, has specialized in in-depth athlete profiles, with the bar set by 2020. the last dance, the story of Michael Jordan’s final season in the NBA. Jeter was an early proponent of telling stories from an athlete’s perspective, having founded The Players’ Tribune in 2014. The medium has since expanded its reach and become one of the producers of The captain.
The series airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET, both on ESPN linear and streaming on ESPN+, with the second episode following Thursday. Pairs of episodes will premiere and air on July 28 and August 4, with the finale set for August 11.
Using Jeter’s 2014 farewell season as a guideline, the series traces Jeter’s rise from a Yankee-loving toddler to a Michigan high schooler who was drafted by his favorite team in 1992. Through interviews with Jeter, mother and father Dorothy and Dr. Charles Jeter, sister Sharlee Jeter his wife, the show explores Jeter’s unique drive and his exploits once he became the Yankees’ full-time shortstop in 1996.
Even the baseball curious will delight in interviews with Roger Clemens, Tino Martinez, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Willie Randolph, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Darryl Strawberry, Joe Torre and Bernie Williams. Cultural figures such as late-night TV hosts Desus & Mero and hip-hop artists Fat Joe and Jadakiss also appear, as does Jeter’s wife Hannah.
Rodriguez was a surprise, Wilkins said, given his complicated history with Jeter. The two became friends in high school and found themselves in the media spotlight for years as they both played shortstop and were seen as the future of the sport. Jeter’s later betrayals (conceded on camera by Rodriguez) and his decision to move to third base when he was signed by the Yankees provide vivid material. While the pair played against a World Series winner in 2009, the impression was left that it should have been more, considering the team won more than any other team in baseball. This year’s Yankees team has a good chance of ending the 13-year title drought, having compiled baseball’s best record during the All-Star break.
The climactic seventh episode focuses on Jeter’s bumpy time as CEO of the Miami Marlins and his decision to retire from the team earlier this year after more than four years of frustration.
The Marlins-centric episode expanded the original plan to half a dozen, Wilkins said, when the filmmakers sensed preparations for a more timely finale. “We definitely mapped everything out, but gave ourselves the flexibility to go in different directions if that’s where the story was going,” he said. “My philosophy is that the pictures are king. If that’s where it takes us, that’s where we’re going to go. … The emotional beats that came out of the pictures were basically the roadmap to follow.
Contrary to the last dance, The captain doesn’t focus on never-before-seen archival material, but its artful revisiting of past clips pays considerable dividends. An example is the iconic 2001 playoff flip play, when Jeter took a pitch from right field on the dead run and returned it to Yankees catcher Jorge Posada in time to score the Oakland A runner trying to score . The play came as the Yankees rallied New York and the country at large just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Wilkins said his goal with footage like the one documenting reverse play was to “create this larger context in which this play exists. Sometimes they just show you the room and they talk about the brilliance of the room, but the context in which the room lives is just as important. What makes this scene work is that there’s so much emotional investment with the team, with where the country was at the time, where the city was at the time. It was that moment that transcended baseball, it was that moment of survival where town and country went through.
While Lee is known for often appearing on TV as an unabashed booster for the Yankees as well as his beloved Knicks, Wilkins said he consciously wanted to avoid indulging his fan side when telling the story. “I had a very clear intention to make sure it was accessible to everyone – Yankees fans, non-Yankees fans, baseball fans, non-baseball fans,” he said. “My fandom has nothing to do with my cinema. They are two separate things. I think my fandom helped me understand what the story was and who he is. But the intention was to go beyond…. The intention was not to please Yankees fans…. We wanted to humanize Derek to a broad audience.
One of the most compelling aspects of the first five episodes, which were made available to the press ahead of the show’s premiere, is the treatment of Jeter’s run. Born to a black father and a white mother, Jeter was raised to prepare for society to automatically categorize him as black. The captain also explores the blow to Jeter for not always seeming to conform to certain definitions of blackness and also for not speaking publicly about racial episodes in New York or the country. A standout passage from Episode 5 features a sportswriter factually observing that Jeter always struck him and the press as a whole as “almost colorless, not just physically but in the way he spoke.” . Because Jeter had “established the ground rules” with the media, reporters generally didn’t bother to ask the star about controversial race issues.
When those comments are repeated to Jeter and his family on camera, their disdain is palpable. (“Who the fk are you?!” The former Yankee responds. He and other interviewees also note the dilemma facing top athletes (Jordan and Tiger Woods among them) in terms of weighing in on the issues. Former Yankee great Reggie Jackson once said he had to turn 75 before he felt comfortable speaking publicly about race.
“I don’t really have takeout for the public,” Wilkins said. “I just wanted to tell a full story about who Derek Jeter is and his identity as a biracial black male has a huge influence on how he sees the world. It’s a huge influence on how he performed as a baseball player, how he engaged the public and people privately. It’s just a huge part of who he is.
He added: “I believe that telling the story of Derek Jeter is also telling a story about ourselves, to some extent. How we treat others, how we perceive others, how we interact with others, depending on multiple factors. There’s a lot going on with Derek Jeter in a racial context that a lot of people want to get away from and pretend it’s not there. I wanted to put the microscope on it and force people to face it.
With his nearly decade-long playing career in the rearview mirror, “he’s in some ways in a better position to talk about it because there are no immediate ramifications for him,” Wilkins said. “He’s almost protected by retirement now, which says a lot about the system around him, not necessarily about him.”