Netflix’s Bubba Wallace docuseries ends up losing the race

The Nascar driver’s tumultuous time at the top is a fascinating story but a muddled and pandering series doesn’t do him justice

Early into the premiere episode of Race, the six-part Netflix docuseries on Bubba Wallace, the thesis statement comes roaring in as loud as a stock car at wide-open throttle. “I think a lot of the world needs to understand that this is probably the most pressured athlete in all of sports history,” muses Ryan Hall, Wallace’s baby-faced manager. And while no one would deny the unique stresses that Wallace has endured as the only Black driver in Nascar’s top racing division … pump your brakes.

At last check Warner Bros just dropped a feature film about two Black girls from Compton who somehow went on to dominate the lily-white world of tennis. And then there’s also that Black kid from Stevenage who broke into Formula One on the way to becoming arguably the greatest driver in the sport’s history. The Old World racism that the Williams sisters and Lewis Hamilton overcame on their way to the top is every bit as virulent as the Southern fried variety that Wallace, 28, has to reckon with — and the Williams and Hamilton haven’t entirely risen above it either. This self-important streak is a major headwind for Race, which would’ve been better served by letting the whirlwind driver’s life speak for itself.

That was the hook for Behind the Wall, the eight-part docuseries that helped launch Facebook Watch in 2018. And it introduced the world to a happy-go-lucky sort who didn’t shrink from his burden of being the fourth Black driver to ever compete at Nascar’s highest-echelon Cup series, but also didn’t let that burden get in the way of palling around with peer drivers and crew members, flogging his basement drum kit for fun, or annoying his fiancee, Amanda, with his bouts of uncontrolled flatulence.

The let-the-subject-breathe approach just doesn’t work for Behind the Wall, which captures Wallace in his maiden Cup season when the driver colloquially known as Nascar’s Charley Pride had hoped to be considered one of the good ol’ boys. But the show-don’t-tell formula ends up becoming the secret sauce in Drive to Survive - Formula One’s hit Netflix reality series. It lets F1’s personalities, politics and rivalries do the hard job of shrinking a sprawling, technophilic sport down to savoury morsels.

Race was supposed to be Nascar’s Drive to Survive rebuttal, their bid to pull racing agnostics into the sport. But unlike the earlier series, which limited expert testimony to a small batch of insiders, Race does something far different. Rather than restrict the wide-angle perspectives to authorities like Nascar D&I head Brandon Thompson and the all-knowing beat reporter Bob Pockrass,the urgency to grab casual viewers has director Erik Parker going to W Kamau Bell, Jemele Hill and other Nascar dilettantes to reinforce why this here project is so essential and well worth your time. Here’s the thing, though: unlike Formula One, still a largely unknown quantity on these shores, the curious odyssey of Nascar’s Bubba Wallace has been headline news for the better part of a decade.

Race picks it up at its controversial peak in 2020 and finds the driver world-weary and struggling with depression. In the doc Wallace calls 2020 the craziest year of his life, and June was easily the maddest month. Race reveals how a sport idled by the pandemic sent Wallace hurtling on to a crash course with the boiling social justice movement, and how the viral video of Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death kicked up memories of a similar incident in his family 15 years earlier. (Brace yourself: the first episode almost gleefully replays the Arbery video over. And over. And over …)

Dead-set on making a statement, despite his car owner going on record with his disdain for national anthem protesters, Wallace turned up to Nascar’s 7 June restart in Atlanta in a black T-shirt bearing George Floyd’s last words: “I Can’t Breathe.” A day later he pushed Nascar to ban displays of the confederate flag, an ugly vestige of the sport’s southeastern roots. For the following week’s race at Martinsville, Va., his car was turned into a Black Lives Matter billboard. Two weeks after that, he was greeted at a race in Talladega by a parade of rebel flag bearers and with what looked like a noose hanging from his garage door stall. And when the FBI closed its investigation without calling the noose incident a hate crime, seemingly every red-hat right winger from President Trump on down called out Wallace for crying wolf - even though it was a crew member who called in the sighting.

But the truly astonishing bit comes when Wallace, in the Race premiere, talks about how he knew he was risking it all by placing the Amazon order for that “I Can’t Breathe” shirt and how he was prepared to suffer the consequences. “I put everything else aside and was selfish for a change,” he tells me. The irony of course is that by standing 10-toes down in his Blackness, Wallace wasn’t just embraced by Nascar’s inner circle and the larger Black American community; he became an endorsement magnet on the way to helming an expansion racing team co-owned by Michael Jordan that just opened the 2022 season with a second-place finish at Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Worse than lacking Drive to Survive’s luxury marques, glamorous locales and space-age technology, Race suffocates its subject in context, overstating the significance of a driver who doesn’t need much setup. Wallace’s isn’t the untold story of some far away historical figure but, rather, the unfinished journey of a driver on the cusp unfolding under the scrutinising eyes of social media and the international press. That’s a plenty compelling hook on its own. Race didn’t need the extra fuming to justify itself.


Andrew Lawrence

The GuardianTramp

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