This is going to be a great year for retrospectives. 1994 and 1999 are the two greatest cinematic years I’ve ever lived through, and ‘89 wasn’t too shabby either. In summer of ‘94 I went to work at the movie theater and ‘99 was when I moved to LA permanently. So in addition to landmark films a lot of these will come with significant life moments too. The first new release of 1994, and my favorite Kevin bacon movie, The Air Up There turns 25 today.
Back in the ‘90s they focused on high concept movies to get people into the theaters. Sports were a fairly direct high concept, Be they the underdog Mighty Ducks, fast talking comedy like White Men Can’t Jump or fish out of water of Cool Runnings. The Air Up There has a big idea.
Jimmy Dolan (Bacon) is a college scout who blows it recruiting a star athlete. To redeem himself he goes to Africa to find a great new power forward. No, no, he’s not going to Africa to pick from all the black people he assumes are great at basketball. He sees a player in the background of a film about the school’s charity work in Africa. He’s going specifically to find Saleh (Charles Gitonga Maina).
There’s a really poignant dynamic between Jimmy and Saleh. Jimmy is offering Saleh a college scholarship which is a huge opportunity. Yet he’s also white savioring. Saleh is a Winabi prince and intends to take his place as the village leader. To him, Jimmy gets more out of this deal than Saleh, saving his career and giving his school an athletic edge.
Like a typical American man, Jimmy thinks he can fix the Winabi problems to make it okay for Saleh to leave. Of course centuries of tradition, years of family drama and rivalry with the Mingori aren’t going to get fixed in two weeks. It’s more important for Jimmy to learn to stop trying to sell people and control everything. That’s the part I find so inspiring. Jimmy has the vision quest. Jimmy goes from well meaning but misguided to well meaning and selfless.
First though, Jimmy lost Buddy Wilson (Keith GIbbs) by showing him up in one on one. It’s a satisfying scene because Buddy is a cocky punk. He deserves to be put in his place and if Buddy gives up a scholarship over ego he doesn’t deserve it. He finds UNLV catering to him anyway. Learning humility is important for Buddy, but so is signing the temperamental talent for Jimmy. It also sets up Jimmy’s signature move, the Shake and Bake.
The reason he lost Buddy was he did things his way, which we hear he always did as a college player too. The reason he can’t convince Saleh or his father is because he doesn’t understand a tribe (that’s like a team, get it?) or following someone else’s leadership. When Jimmy learns that, that’s bigger than winning a championship or signing a college player.
The Air Up There trailers made a big deal of introducing Charles Gitonga Maina and he lived up to his debut. He was charismatic, charming and beautifully athletic. He didn’t really pursue acting. His only other appearance was on Seaquest DSV but he seemed to parlay his fame into an athletic scholarship. His story doesn’t have a Hollywood ending though as a few years ago Sports Illustrated tracked him down. He’d lost his visa for leaving the U.S. to pursue a European basketball team and wasn’t allowed back into the States. I’m just glad SI found him, because I’d been wondering about him for decades.
The Air Up There has a bit of the fish out of water with Jimmy in Africa when it comes to the wildlife, village chores and especially pooping. Appropriately, Jimmy is the butt of those jokes. He can’t hack it when the Winabi call it a Tuesday.
I’m not a sports fan but I love sports movies. Jimmy describes basketball in a way that conveys his passion for it. I relate to his passion if not the specific subject of basketball.
The basketball is exhilarating. The opening one on one is a thrill, and Jimmy’s training Saleh and the villagers gives good montages. Yes there is a climactic game between the Winabi and Mingori. The stakes are huge. If the Winabi win they get their land back and Saleh agrees to go with Jimmy. Winabi are down significantly at halftime but they get new shoes and Jimmy and Saleh put their deal aside and focus entirely on the game with plenty of slam dunks and balls bouncing on the edge of the rim.
They filmed The Air Up There in Kenya, back when location shooting was a selling point. It’s great to see Bacon in the wilderness. Today they wouldn’t bother. They didn’t even shoot Black Panther in Africa.
A white guy joining an African tribe probably wouldn’t fly today. It was a different time and I think Jimmy is in awe of the Winabi, not appropriating them. The Winabi invite him, although the screenwriter and director were white guys so I’ll have to defer to Africans whether or not Jimmy joining the WInabi was okay. The fact that the Winabi are a fictional tribe may mitigate concerns about appropriation, although so is Wakanda and there have been issues with Halloween costumes. I’ve never heard anyone be offended by The Air Up There so I hope it’s all in the spirit of celebrating each other.
The Air Up There may end on my favorite freeze frame ever too (second favorite: Street Fighter: The Movie). Saleh and Jimmy have both achieved something, but more importantly they’ve solidified their friendship. It was their friendship that lifted each other up and that’s the moment to capture and freeze into cinematic history.