Review: the basketball documentary ‘Giants of Africa’

The simplistic, but heartwarming documentary Giants of Africa takes viewers behind the scenes of one of Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri’s biggest philanthropic endeavours. Ujiri, the only African born president of a major North American sports franchise, runs several basketball camps throughout the continent with hopes that the game can bring positivity, comfort, and possibly even mental and financial stability to those in greatest need.

Director Hubert Davis follows Ujiri and his fellow volunteer coaches, scouts, trainers, and advisors to various training camps in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, and Rwanda. Davis observes along with Ujiri and his staff the sweat and dedication that goes into camps that are already hard to get into and attend. Some people have travelled for days across entire countries just for a chance to get in, and this says nothing of what it takes to make it to one of the “all star” teams Ujiri and his staff are putting together to showcase the best players. The camps themselves last for days, and Ujiri makes sure that those attending are accommodated with new gear, a place to sleep, and three square meals a day.

Ujiri doesn’t get too personal about his own past, and Giants of Africa wants to shine more of a light on the philanthropic nature of the titular basketball organization. Davis doesn’t really press any personal buttons, and he follows Ujiri pretty much wherever his subject wants the film to go. While it’s admirable that the goal of Giants of Africa (the film and the organization) is to tear down the stereotype of agents and scouts headed to the continent in search of the next behemoth NBA superstar, it’s also obvious from the jump that outside of philanthropy, Ujiri is also by his own semi-candid confession trying to do the same thing. Anyone looking for more than a basic answer as to why Ujiri spends so much time and money putting on these camps (outside of ingrained need to do good for those less fortunate) will be frustrated, but thankfully some of the camps’ trainers and coaches – a handful of whom were friends or mentors of Ujiri since childhood – are able to fill in the blanks.

Similarly, Giants of Africa might take a bit too long to get around to telling the personal narratives of the basketball hopefuls. While it’s great that Ujiri espouses how the camps can have educational benefits (including a seminar on the importance of respecting women) and physically can allow players to relax and become better at the sport, Davis spends more time one on one with Ujiri than the players. That heart and soul should come from the players; not from Ujiri’s chequebook and playbook. Not everyone is good enough to attend the camp and even some of the best players in the country can’t make the journey for various reasons, but those who do speak of their experience with a wealth of gratitude and relief. Ujiri can come and go as he pleases, which creates a sort of false equivalency between the philanthropist and his charges.

But once the testimonials of the players start to take over the film, Giants of Africa takes a turn in a better, more interesting, and genuine direction. Many of these young men have fled from civil wars, abusive homes, extremist groups, and unimaginable poverty, so it’s hard not to be inspired by their words. These stories should be the reason for the film’s existence, and while they’re valid, inspirational stories, it’s hard not to see Giants of Africa as much more than someone getting a pat on the back for doing something good, and even by those standards, Davis’ film struggles to go anywhere deeper.

Giants of Africa screens at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas in Toronto starting on Friday, April 7, 2017.

Check out the trailer for Giants of Africa:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.