New Documentary ‘Power of the Dream’ Is a Reminder of the WNBA’s Core Values

You don’t need to be a sports gay to have heard at least something about the WNBA this year. Whether it’s the phenomenal rookie class, the fire pre-game fit checks, or even Ellie the Elephant’s shenanigans, the WNBA is enjoying unprecedented attention at the moment. So the timing could not be more perfect for the release of Prime Video’s WNBA documentary, Power of the Dream. Produced by Tracee Ellis Ross and players Nneka Ogwumike and Sue Bird, Power of the Dream tells the story of how a group of players put activism at the forefront of their 2020 season and shifted the U.S. political landscape through their backing of Georgia’s Senator Raphael Warnock.

As two of Autostraddle’s resident WNBA stans, Natalie and Nic got together to chat about the documentary and its importance in the sports doc canon.


Natalie: So, you and I have been competing in fantasy leagues together and exchanging messages about the WNBA for a while now, but I don’t think we’ve ever talked about what first drew you to the league.

Nic: Wow wow wow, you’re right! So I was 10 years old when the WNBA debuted in 1997, and I remember hearing about it on ESPN (we’ve always been a big sports family) and thinking it was so dope that women had their own league. I loved the Liberty from the jump. And I begged my parents for a Becky Hammon jersey and WNBA basketball so I could pretend I was a pro while shooting on the hoop in the driveway.

Natalie: I love that so much!

Nic: Come to think of it, Becky was definitely one of my roots. I always kept my eye on the league through high school and college as a casual viewer, but I got back in full force during the 2019 season, the one where Elena Delle Donne won MVP. She played at my Alma Mater so I tuned in to see her at first, but what kept me was the talent and passion of every single player in this league; especially the Black women. They were, and still are, mesmerizing to watch both on and off the court. I’m excited to talk especially about that second part.

Natalie: We’re getting together to talk about this documentary during, perhaps, the most watched — and scrutinized — season of the WNBA to date…and I mention that off top because, as I was watching Power of the Dream a lot of what sprung to mind was, “the new fans need to watch this.” It was weird how much the tumult of this season really colored my reaction to the documentary.

Did you have that same reaction? Who do you think the audience for this documentary is?

Nic: I absolutely did have that reaction! Before about a month ago, I would have said the audience is anyone who loves basketball and understands its inextricable link to politics. But as I watched on my big screen and scrolled social media on my little screen, it became crystal clear that the folks who need to watch it, are the new fans who may have the “shut up and dribble” mentality that has gotten louder in the last few years. The WNBA’s existence is in and of itself political and based on the intersectionality of every single player in the league. They’ve had to fight to be seen in one way or another from the time most of them picked up a ball; advocacy is in their bones, you know?

Natalie: Absolutely. There’s definitely a sense of “we’re not new to this, we’re true to this” that comes along with watching this doc….and, as if to emphasize the point, the members of the WNBA’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee released a statement last week about a partnership with Rock the Vote ahead of the November elections. These women are truly invested in doing the work.

Nic: They embody “walk the walk”; it would be easy to do the equivalent of posting a black square on Instagram and calling it a day. But they take their position in the spotlight seriously. They know that their platform gives them an advantage when it comes to activism and I love that they’re making the active choice to use it for good. Even at the risk of potentially losing that platform. Big “if they wanted to, they would” energy.

Now, you and I have been here for a minute, you even more deeply enmeshed than me, so we’re pretty familiar with a lot of the W lore; how did having that historical knowledge affect your feelings while watching?

Natalie: I don’t think there was a moment during this documentary that I wasn’t cognizant of the fact that this level of activism is a well-honed legacy, dating back to the 1996 Olympic team to now. The women of the WNBA have always understood that it’s bigger than them, that their causes have been bigger than basketball.

That said, I’m really of two minds on this documentary: On the one hand, I’m so glad it exists at this moment because, as we noted, it’s a quick way for people to learn about the W’s legacy of activism. But, as someone who’s been a fan of this league for a long time…and, in particular, as someone who watched ESPN’s documentary, “144,” back in 2021…not enough of this documentary felt like new information?

The biggest strength of this documentary isn’t its storytelling — “144” is, for me, the better vehicle — it’s its timing. What’d you think about the documentary overall?

Nic: For me, I enjoyed watching it 1) because of its timing, as you said, and 2) because while I knew the broad strokes of the W’s involvement with Say Her Name, Black Lives Matter, and Senator Warnock’s eventual election, I was actually fuzzier on the details of what it took behind-the-scenes for any of this to happen. I will say, an unexpected emotion I had was an overwhelming sense of anger listening to the players talk about how while they were still mourning Breonna Taylor, they were bombarded with headline after headline of yet another Black person being gunned down. It’s something that I knew intellectually we all were feeling at the time, and still now to some extent, but hearing the pain in their voices, it brought me right back to 2020.

Natalie: Yes, it took me right back too.

Nic: And don’t get me started on the Kelly Loeffler of it all. Admittedly, this particular WNBA storyline missed me when it first happened, so I got to experience that anger for the very first time thanks to the doc.

Was there anything you really liked about the doc’s political storylines?

Natalie: The documentary brought in a lot of elements: about the bubble and about Black Likes Matter and the Say Her Name campaign, but ultimately it’s about this Georgia Senate race…which, even I didn’t fully appreciate how significant that win was until this doc laid it out so clearly.

One thing I really liked: There’s a point at which Nneka Ogwumike and Layshia Clarendon are just carrying too much…their responsibilities as players, their roles as the head of the WNBA Players’ Association, and the weight of being a Black person in this country at that particular moment…and they needed Sue Bird to take on more. You get to see Sue grapple with those dynamics and understand how privileged she is in that moment.

I found myself hoping that how Sue handled herself was instructive for the moment we’re in now in the W. I hope that white fans recognize the extra burden the world places on these young, Black players…and I hope that white players recognize the privilege they operate with, even within the under-resourced world of women’s basketball.

What about you? Did you find moments of this story that really resonated with you or that you hope might resonate with newcomers to the W?

Nic: I’m really glad you mentioned the Sue Bird of it all, because that really stood out to me. Not only Sue stepping up when Nneka and Layshia needed help, but also the fact that Nneka and Layshia essentially said listen, this is Too Much right now, we need you to carry this. It seems obvious, but I think that hit me particularly hard because personally I’ve had a hard time acknowledging when I need help carrying something, especially when I feel like I should be able to handle it. But says who?

I had the exact same thought you did about white players and fans recognizing the privilege they move through the world and the league with. What gives me hope is that we’ve seen several examples lately of white players like Paige Bueckers, Cameron Brink, and Hailey Van Lith actively speaking out on that very privilege.

Something else that stood out to me was that while these players were doing the activism work and feeling the racial tensions the entire country was feeling, they had to contend with an entire pandemic and a season taking place in the W’s carefully curated bubble. I don’t think enough credit is given to everyone who made that feat possible. Plus, we get to see the players just hanging out with each other? It provided some levity in an otherwise heavy documentary.

Natalie: There have been a slew of WNBA documentaries lately: Shattered Glass on Tubi, which details the fight for a new collective bargaining agreement, or the Sue Bird (Sue Bird: In the Clutch) and Candace Parker (Candace Parker: Unapologetic) ones, or the Liberty’s Unfinished Business. Where do you think Power of the Dream ranks among them?

Nic: First of all, I just love the fact that this many documentaries about the W exist. Whether it’s player-focused, team-focused, or cause-focused, there are so many stories to tell from so many angles, so I hope this is just the beginning. I’m not going to pick a favorite, but I think as far as importance goes, this one is near the top for the reason we spoke about earlier. Timing. For better and for worse, there have never been so many eyes on the WNBA and it’s important for new and old fans to understand that while this league has 144 of the best women and nonbinary basketball players in the world, it’s also about more than basketball. It has to be. For the vast majority of players in the W, it’s about their safety once they take off that uniform. They don’t get to ignore politics or social justice or activism; they are who we are fighting for.

Natalie: When she premiered this documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival recently, Sue Bird reiterated a commitment to telling the stories of female athletes through her production company. If you could get a sports documentary about the WNBA greenlit, who or what would it be about?

Nic: Oooo I love this question and I’m going to make you answer it too, so get ready! Since we can already cross a Liberty doc off the list, I would love to see a Hard Knocks-like behind-the-scenes documentary starting from the WNBA draft and continuing through the season. Maybe even specifically focusing on that year’s rookie class and showcasing the quick transition from college to a short training camp to professional ball and everything that comes with it. Including shenanigans, of course! What about you?

Natalie: I’d love to see a Hard Knocks, WNBA edition…can you even imagine having spent the last two years in the Indiana Fever locker room? It would’ve been must-see TV. Not to play to the home crowd too much but I’d love to see a documentary on the evolution of queer acceptance in the WNBA. It hasn’t always been the welcoming and inclusive environment we know today.


Power of the Dream is now streaming on Prime.

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Nic

Nic is a Senior Product Manager at a major Publisher and lives in Astoria, NY. She is way too attached to queer fictional characters and maintains that buying books and reading books are two very different hobbies. When she's not consuming every form of fiction, you can find her dropping it low on the dance floor. You can find Nic on twitter and instagram.

Nic has written 79 articles for us.

Natalie

A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 410 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. Great convo! I need that doc about queer acceptance in the league like I need air!

    As a white fan, I too hope that other white fans and players take Sue’s grappling with her privilege and ultimate action as instructive. I’ve thought a lot about Sue in all this “shut up and dribble” talk – she didn’t come in the league a vocal activist (as Lisa Leslie said on the Bird and Taurasi show, apparently she “didn’t speak” when they were on the Olympic team together, lol) but as time went on she grew to understand and use her privilege to be an ally not just in speech but action

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