ESPN’s new documentary, ‘The Crossover,’ explores the 50-year synergy between sports and hip-hop

Review: “The Crossover: 50 Years of Hip-Hop and Sports” premiered at the 2023 Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival.

Aug. 11, 1973, is universally recognized as the birthdate of hip-hop culture. Jamaica-born Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell DJ’ed an after-school party orchestrated by his sister Cindy Campbell in the Bronx, thus irreversibly changing the world.

On Aug. 11, 2023, ESPN Films screened its latest installment of the award-winning E60 documentary series at the 2023 Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival. As fate would have it, the film tracks how much the world has changed since that dance party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue while intermingled with the influence of sports. 

“The Crossover: 50 Years of Hip-Hop and Sports” is a thoroughly told analysis of the origins of sports activism, the parallel rise of hip-hop culture, and when and how the two worlds collided and merged. Told in four chapters, the documentary is a fantastic testament to how sports and hip-hop culture have not only affected society but how much they began to depend on each other. 

The film included interviews with journalists and historians like Dr. Todd Boyd, Jemele Hill, Justin Tinsley, Danyel Smith, Michael Wilbon, Jesse Washington, and Nikole-Hannah Jones. At the same time, hip-hop artists like Big Daddy Kane, Fat Joe, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Rakim also appeared. 

Director Julian Gooden did a superb job tracing the lineage of sports and hip-hop back to the decades before hip-hop began. He set the scene back to the days of the civil rights movement, speaking of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and pivotal moments like the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. 

It’s enlightening and affirming to be reminded how pivotal the voices of Black athletes and musicians have been to raising awareness of the community’s plight and place in society. The film breaks down the origins of the Black athlete being outspoken about social issues going back to Jack Johnson, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The viewer also gets a crash course on the aforementioned creation of hip-hop culture via a creative tutorial from DJ Jazzy Jeff. 

One of the most impressive and educational aspects of “The Crossover” is identifying the archetype athletes in each generation who embodied both hip-hop culture and social commentary in their unique ways, starting with Muhammad Ali going all the way to Deion Sanders, Allen Iverson, and Shaquille O’Neal. 

Iverson’s presence, in particular, received much attention and praise in “The Crossover.” The NBA Hall of Famer exuded hip-hop culture so much that just by refusing to filter himself from his play, hair, tattoos, outspokenness, and wardrobe, being yourself was seen as a political statement. 

21st Annual Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival
Julian Gooden speaks onstage at the screening of ESPN Films “The Crossover 50 Years of Hip Hop and Sports” during the 21st Annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival on Aug. 11, 2023, in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. (Photo by Nick Hunt/Getty Images for MVAAFF)

What’s refreshing about “The Crossover” is the illustration of how much hip-hop culture infiltrated popular culture to the point where it began to influence politics and politicians. Because hip-hop and sports had a concurrent push of political commentary, it allowed Black athletes and rappers access to seats at the table that go as far as the White House. 

“The Crossover: 50 Years of Hip-Hop and Sports” is a living testimony of the importance of Black culture to American society. It’s a brilliant depiction of how vital Black art and athletics are to influencing culture, holding culture accountable for its flaws, and, when done right, leading it in the right direction. 

Apple TV provided complimentary travel accommodations and flights for Grio staff to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival.

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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