FX's 'Clipped' Goes Beyond Donald Sterling's Racist Comments: NPR

Ed O'Neill as former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling Cut.

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It might be easy to brush aside a limited series on the Donald Sterling scandal today. Even when it first broke a decade ago, after gossip site TMZ published a recording of racist comments made by the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, the whole thing had an unsavory, gossipy feel to it — sparking a barrage of criticism which shocked the sports world and led to a forced sale of the team.

Making the situation even more tawdry, Sterling was recorded by a younger female companion who was not his wife, leading some to believe she leaked the audio during a power struggle with his husband. (The woman then claimed that she had not leaked the tapes herself and that she and Sterling were never romantically involved; the series suggests that was at least a strong possibility.)

But FX'ing Cut digs deeper as the six episodes unfold, using Sterling's abrasive toxicity to harness a story about wealth, power, class, race and more – asking powerful questions about what people will accept to gain access to money, privileges and valued achievements.

A team hampered by an unpredictable owner

The story begins with the arrival in Los Angeles of coach Doc Rivers, played by the busty Laurence Fishburne as a shrewd optimist – a former NBA star and respected coach hired from Boston to build a team for which he once played. played. . When a fan asks why Rivers, as a championship coach, would join a franchise considered one of the worst in the league, he simply replies, “I like a challenge.”

Laurence Fishburne as Doc Rivers.

Laurence Fishburne as Doc Rivers.

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But Rivers soon discovers that his biggest challenge is the team's owner: an eccentric real estate mogul who treats players like valuable assets, monopolizes meetings with long, rambling monologues, and throws out racist and sexist asides without caring about the consequences. Think of a more abrasive Donald Trump with even less filter.

Modern family alum Ed O'Neill inhabits Sterling as an irascible, erratic idiot, unconcerned about the destruction he wreaks and confident that his wealth and power insulate and justify his actions.

Based on the ESPN 30 for 30 podcast The Sterling cases, FXing Cut carefully lays out a scenario that is turned on its head later in the series, with Australian actress Jacki Weaver delivering a particularly shrewd performance as Sterling's long-time wife, Shelly. Early on, we watch with sympathy as her husband of 60 years views lavish expensive clothes, housing and a Ferrari on a beautiful young assistant who everyone assumes is his girlfriend, V. Stiviano (Cleopatra Coleman).

Ultimately, we'll discover that there's a hard calculating core beneath Shelly's benign absent-minded veneer – and a reason why she and Donald have remained married for a lifetime.

Exposing Donald Sterling's not-so-secret racism

When Shelly tries to get her husband to drop Stiviano out of their lives, gossip website TMZ publishes a recording of Donald urging his assistant to stop posting photos of himself on social media with famous black men like retired hoop star Earvin' Magic Johnson. “It really bothers me that you want to make it known that you associate with black people,” Sterling argues in a conversation that was shown on the TMZ website.

Sterling's questionable behavior has been a dirty secret within the NBA for years, but the leaked audio forces Rivers and the Clippers players to decide whether to boycott games just as the team is winning. There is already a simmering tension in professional basketball between highly talented, highly paid, mostly black players and the white owners, staffers and fans who surround them; Sterling's recording put all those tensions on full display.

But who really cares Cut, Thus, the scandal forces everyone around Sterling to confront the compromises they made to get what they have. Players must choose between taking a principled stand or playing to capture a historic championship. Flashbacks show Stiviano struggling to run a failing food truck business before a friend shows her how to align herself with powerful, wealthy men to pay her bills.

Later, that same friend reminds Stiviano that she is looking for real money from Donald Sterling. “You're 31…whipped cream,” she adds. “It's the same as playing with the ball. They give you fifteen years to make money, then you have to find your own income stream.'

Cleopatra Coleman as V. Stiviano.

Cleopatra Coleman as V. Stiviano.

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Rivers thinks back to his time as a player for the Clippers in 1991, at the height of the scandal over the Los Angeles police beating of black motorist Rodney King, and wonders whether his decision to not to speak out was a mistake which he repeats by urging players not to boycott Sterling now.

The coach's unexpected confidante as he navigates it all: actor, director and TV host LeVar Burton, who plays himself and befriends Rivers in a steam room they both frequent. Relaxing in the living room of Rivers' opulent apartment, the two men have a revealing conversation about feeling caught between the comforts of success in a white-dominated America and the consequences for successful black people who reveal their anger at racial injustice.

“America first met me as [enslaved youth] Kunta Kinte [in the miniseries Roots]… then I read to their children and preserved the integrity of their favorite spaceship … soon people began to see me as safe,” Burton says, adding that he paid a financial price when he took public actions that were seen as tense or aloof confronting.

“So I keep the chains [from Roots] on the wall in my living room,” he adds. “I do [house guests] to know that while I am undoubtedly their friend, I am also absolutely filled with rage.

Facing the reality of compromise

But does such anger, even when expressed publicly, create lasting change? Cut's ending, which I will not describe here, puts the answer in serious doubt.

It is tempting to compare Cut with another prestige TV show about a dysfunctional Los Angeles basketball team: HBO's series about the Lakers, Winning time. Sports fans will undoubtedly criticize Cut because it has some of the same weaknesses: the circumstances are changed to heighten the drama, more flattering portrayals given to someone like Rivers (who was involved in the production as a consultant), and an increased recreation of a scandal that many already know well .

Still, Cut aims a little higher, teasing a story where everyone involved is both more – and less – than they seem. Although the message about the ubiquity of compromise and the lasting power of wealth may be a bit hard to swallow.

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