Mel Davis embraces son Mawuli.
Hardwood, is, first and foremost, the personal journey of director Hubert Davis. He sets out to find out why his father, former Harlem Globetrotter Mel Davis, made the decisions that so shaped Hubert’s own life. And Hubert knows exactly whom to ask — Megan, his white mother, who fell in love with Davis in the 1960s, when racism seemed to make a marriage impossible; Mary Etta, the black woman Davis eventually married; Hubert’s older half-brother, Mawuli, whom he didn’t know until he was 11; and, most importantly, the basketball-playing and coaching old man himself.
No well-told family drama, however singular, is without wider social connotations. This is especially so in a time when the concept of ‘family’ remains the bedrock of society, even as it faces unprecedented challenge and change. When the question of race enters the mix, the story is even more complex. The quiet surprise of Hardwood, may be that the urge towards reconciliation on the part of Davis’s son Hubert was strong enough to bring a new, extended family together for the first time — beyond prejudice and preconception.
In his directorial debut, Hubert Davis is lucky enough to find two families ready to discuss things that were never before broached in the presence of the children on either side. Hardwood, is not a case of the creative, brash son prodding reluctant relatives to dredge up old times. For both Davis families, it’s about time. And luckily for the viewer, Hubert has skillfully woven interviews, archival footage and home movies into quiet, jazzy sequences that evoke a family’s emotional ups and downs. The musicality is further suggested by the film’s division into three movements — “love,” “recollection” and “redemption.”
The Davises are open, candid and self-aware. No one is readier to talk than Mel himself, and nothing is more key than the communication that has to go on between Mel and his two sons. In the manner of men, especially sports-playing men, Mel and his sons had been used to speaking obliquely if at all about the most personal sides of their lives. Now the boys want answers and Mel wants to give them.
Whatever role racism played in his decisions, Mel admits basketball played as great a part as anything. He loved it. Speaking of his young manhood, he admits he loved basketball before he ever loved a woman. These aren’t the words of an obsessive hobbyist. Mel was the son of a
14-year-old inner-city mother, and it’s difficult to overestimate basketball’s role in forming his identity and offering him a way to succeed in the world. Beginning at Tennessee State, where he played and began coaching young kids, through his 18 years with the Harlem Globetrotters, to his later career as a youth basketball coach, the sport has defined not only Mel’s life but also his philosophy of life.
Touring with the Globetrotters — they called him “frail Mel” because he was so skinny — would be heady stuff for any kid up from the streets. When, on tour, he met Megan and the two fell in love, Mel’s feeling that a marriage was “impossible” and that having children was “not a good idea” was more than the average 1960s black man’s reluctance to defy convention. Such a course would likely have ended Mel’s life as a Globetrotter — possibly ended any career he might have had in basketball or even in education. Still, Mel and Megan’s on-again, off-again relationship — both abetted and excused by Mel’s time on the road — never came to a real stop until one day, after she hadn’t heard from Mel for some time, Megan called and Mary Etta answered the phone.
But Mel was to make a similar choice with Mary Etta and Mawuli. The Globetrotters toured constantly, and while the team afforded the family a better than average economic life, Mel’s long absences proved disastrous for his marriage and especially hard on Mawuli. Mel’s choice to stick with the Globetrotters, especially in the later years, was not merely or even mostly a financial one — he loved the life. And perhaps he had never quite gotten over Megan, which may have helped fuel the conflicts he often found at home with Mary Etta.
Ultimately, Mel and Megan’s love was not to be denied. Mel contacted Megan again — while he was on the road, of course — and both were curious if any of the old fire was there. It was. So Mel made another choice, soon living a life of two families: one official, one not. Before long, Hubert was on the way and Megan accepted raising him alone. Interestingly enough, both boys, Hubert and Mawuli, suffered from their father’s absence, and both grew up sharing their respective mother’s pain.
Hubert never met his father until he was eight years old. He was 11 when he went to live with Mel for the summer — a time that was confusing and difficult enough that he begged his mother to come home. Nonetheless, shortly thereafter, Mel made another fateful decision: he came at last to live full-time with Hubert and his mother in Vancouver. While this decision no doubt caused more pain in Mary Etta’s home, it seems, finally, to have set the stage for the reconciliation this extended family is intent on finding. In Hardwood, as in a well-played basketball game, everyone comes away with a sense of achievement.
“This was the film I had to make, and one only I could make,” says director Hubert Davis. “I couldn’t tell my own story without telling my dad’s, and I couldn’t tell his story without telling the story of my whole family.”