Andre Ward Documentary Not As Illuminating As One Would Hope



Andre Ward Documentary Not As Illuminating As One Would Hope

The question I always ask myself before I watch a documentary on any subject is, “what are they going to tell me that I don’t know?”

Documentaries are all about illuminating the subject, and to put it mildly, Showtime and the filmmakers of S.O.G.: The Book of Ward had their hands full from the jump.

Few boxers in recent history have carried themselves in such an enigmatic fashion as Andre Ward.

Try as it might (and it does try) The Book of Ward never quite gets behind the steel curtain that Andre Ward stands behind.

This effort feels quite authorized, too much so to allow the level of prodding to find what’s underneath layers of protection

It’s not so much the fault of the filmmakers from a technical sense.

The Book of Ward assembles all the major high and low points of Ward’s life in an orderly, chronological manner. However, I think the filmmakers were hampered by two issues.

One is the film’s running time, which sans credits is about 97 minutes. The second is the subject himself.

On the first count, for an athlete as accomplished and unusual as Andre Ward, an hour and a half plus seven is not nearly enough time to go through the ups and downs of his life and career without ending up a mile wide and an inch deep.

Sure, the film doesn’t miss many beats, it’s just that it doesn’t let them play long enough to get below the surface. So, what you end up with is a “greatest hits (and misses)” of Ward’s life.

Andre Ward is the last Olympic Gold medalist in men’s boxing from the USA. We’re going on twenty years now since Ward surprised the amateur ranks by taking the top of the podium in Athens, 2004.

Andre Ward beat Carl Froch

And while the footage of the event and Ward’s ascent are interesting, there just isn’t enough of it.

You could say the same thing about his parents’ struggles with drugs, his own brief period of running the Oakland streets before straightening himself out, as well as his strained and litigious relationships with his former manager James Prince and his promoter Dan Goossen.

All of these events are depicted in a cogent and relatively effective way, but just as each of these dark periods starts to get interesting, the filmmakers move on to another topic.

Having spoken to filmmakers who have made documentaries for Showtime previously, I know that the network’s preference is for their productions to run right around ninety minutes.

Now, a ninety minute documentary on Ward’s relationship with Virgil Hunter or even his final two fights against Sergey Kovalev would have been worthy of that running time on their own. But in trying to fit in every moment of significance in Ward’s life, well, the lack of length and subsequently, depth, makes those moments seem less significant.

The second issue is the obvious one.

Interesting image used to promote the film. There is something in the eyes of Ward that suggests a depth of darkness the film doesn’t portray

Ward is not only a control freak about his own narrative, he’s also a strange character in the world of boxing.

Ward has a great smile, wasn’t boring in the ring, but said so little of interest outside of it that you could never figure out what made him tick as a fighter or as a person.

Sure, we all know that Ward could take his opponent’s style and beat them at their own game, but a squeaky clean (at least as a professional) boxer who doesn’t like to do media and lacks flash is the kind of guy who isn’t going to resonate beyond the narrow world of boxing.

As Virgil Hunter states in the doc, “He won’t be a superstar, but he’s going to beat superstars.” No words spoken in The Book of Ward are more salient than those, which makes the documentary something of a missed opportunity.

You can tell early on by certain cues how deep a film is willing to go, and the choice to light Ward as if he’s in a Michael Bay movie and to have such a soft score are dead giveaways as to a project’s intent.

And I don’t mean to say there’s nothing good about The Book of Ward, only that the book feels more like the Cliff’s Notes version of his life.

The Book of Ward is textbook conventional documentary filmmaking. This happened, then that happened, and so on. It’s all very ABC-123, despite being very professionally made.

Showtime had a chance to showcase one of the most unusual and accomplished boxers in recent years, and the film very much feels like something that Andre Ward would have made as opposed to something a dedicated filmmaker searching for the deeper truth would have created.

There’s never a single second–not even when Ward briefly weeps–that you feel the subject isn’t in control of the film as opposed to those doing the filming.

As someone who always greatly admired Ward’s ability, toughness, and curious personality, I was hoping for more.

While the film touches on Ward’s polarizing effect on boxing fans, it only briefly tries to get at the “why.”

As when Jim Lampley (sure do miss Lamps) points out that he was essentially not controversial and theatrical enough for the average fight fan.

Hunter doubles down on this point by saying that when it comes to boxing (particularly African American fighters) the media prefers “buffoons,” which is something no serious person could ever accuse Ward of being.

But that’s the thing that made him so interesting to me: the fact that there was real mystery where Ward was (and is) concerned.

Most boxers are heart-on-their sleeve types, but Ward was the opposite.

I know fight fans struggled with his stretches of inactivity (mostly due to the Goossen lawsuit), and maybe many of them saw the Jesusy side of him and thought it was phony.

Still, Ward seems like an odd guy to be turned into a villain.

Aside from that gold medal, he won the Super Six tournament (where just like in Athens, he was the underdog), fought a seriously tough slate of boxers, retired undefeated, and put an emphatic period on the end of the sentence of his career by thoroughly beating down Kovalev in their second fight, when the Russian was still thought of as one of the scariest boxers in the fight game.

As Nazim Richardson can be heard saying in the film, “The only thing he didn’t do in boxing is lose” (although more than a few of us had Kovalev by a point or two in their first bout).

Ward had a legitimately insane boxing IQ.

At the end of the film, present day Ward can be seen playing chess with his son. Were it up to me, I would have started the film with this sequence and worked backwards.

Because that’s what Andre Ward was in the ring: a chess player. And anyone who’s ever played chess before knows that it’s a game played mostly in your head before you move a single piece.

Andre Ward was one of the greatest chess players in the history of his sport. Unfortunately (for the viewer), as a documentary subject, Ward is still playing chess, only this time it's with the filmmakers and the viewers.

Just like the bulk of his boxing career, Andre Ward is the person in charge.

That’s an admirable quality, one that seems to play out in his real life as well as in this documentary. At one point in the film, it’s said that Ward never put the audience’s needs before his own when he was a fighter. One could say the same thing about this too short thumbnail sketch of a documentary.

Andre Ward fought on his own terms. He lives on his own terms. And he clearly allowed this documentary to exist on his own terms. There can be no doubt how well that worked out for Ward, but for those of us looking for an illuminating expose of a very complicated man, well, we’re just going to have to continue to wait.