Review: The Phenomenal 'Us Against the World' Is the Real-Life Basketball Version of 'Friday Night Lights'
Full Disclosure: I am a writer for Uproxx, the producer of the docuseries Us Against the World. I usually write about The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul and Netflix over there, and I have nothing to do with their video department. I don’t even understand how their video side works, to be honest. No one from Uproxx asked me to review Us Against The World, either, but if I see something that I like a lot, it’s in my nature to want to share that with my people over here.
Truth is, I didn’t even mean to watch Us Against the World. Uproxx is promoting this series a lot, so I watched the trailer to see what the fuss was about. I was intrigued. I watched the first of ten episodes (which are about 12-15 minutes a piece) and got hooked, and I ended up losing a chunk of my Tuesday night bingeing it (it’s about 2 hours in total, I think), when I was supposed to be watching something else I was going to write about today. So, in lieu of that other thing, I’m writing about this.
Here’s the trailer. It’s 30 seconds long. I think you’ll understand why I was drawn to it.
That trailer promises something akin to the basketball version of Friday Night Lights, and here’s the thing: The series delivers on it. It follows the Cordia Tigers, a basketball team out in poor, rural, Eastern Kentucky, where folks have to save up their money to attend high-school basketball games. In this part of the country, basketball is as big as football is in Texas. It’s huge. It’s Big Blue Nation.
Anyway, several years ago, this tiny, tiny high school brought in Rodrick Rhodes to coach the team. Rhodes used to play for the University of Kentucky basketball team before transferring out to play in the NBA. He’s beloved in Kentucky. He’s goddamn royalty. Or he used to be.
But here’s the rub: Cordia is a settlement school, a school designed to provide diversity in the state. The kids on this basketball team come from Jersey and New York (there’s even an African refugee on the team), and they come to Cordia and live in dorms to escape their homes, where their siblings have been murdered in gang violence, their parents are locked up, and where many of these kids are staring at death or incarceration in their future.
Rural Eastern Kentucky is not exactly a progressive, tolerant place, so while the people in Cordia love their basketball team because they win, folks in surrounding areas are not as enamored. They think it’s a basketball factory. They think Cordia is cheating by bringing in kids from other states to play their homegrown talents. There’s a lot of resentment (and racism) toward Cordia and the coach.
But this is not just about Black kids against White Kids, because here comes another twist that arrives at the end of the first episode and frames the rest of the series: After successfully building his basketball program over 5 years and finally winning the state title, Rodrick Rhodes is fired.
Why in God’s name would they fire a coach after winning the state title? Well, Cordia is part of a larger school district that includes one of their biggest rivals. The superintendent of that district is a homer for Cordia’s rival; in fact, her brother-in-law is the coach of the rival team. It’s the superintendent who fires Rhodes, and not only that, she threatens to consolidate Cordia into her school, which would basically mean the end of a basketball program that ensures that a lot of disadvantaged kids have a shot at attending college.
See? They take their basketball very seriously in Kentucky.
Us Against the World essentially follows the Cordia basketball team the year after Rhodes is fired. Rhodes — who has a very Coach Taylor quality about him — actually sticks around to fight a legal battle to get reinstated while also providing off-the-court mentorship to his players (he’s not allowed to coach them, but there are definitely some secret practices). Cordia is trying to defend its title; contend with the loss of their coach and the closest thing most of the players have to a father; and they have to do it in a state where every other team hates them, where racist hate speech is not uncommon, and in a county where the superintendent is trying to shut them down. Plus, these kids come from dangerous sometimes violent backgrounds, so they have to deal with their own internal issues, as well, and Rhodes has to help them navigate those issues mostly from behind the scenes.
“Us Against the World” is an apt title, and it’s a riveting series (whether you like basketball or not). There’s a lot of heartbreak, a great deal of frustration, and the occasional triumph, but it’s all completely engrossing. Directed by Trent Cooper and Coory Deeb, it’s as good as any documentary movie or series you’d find on Netflix or in theaters, if theaters still screened docs. And that’s kind of the plus side to the pivot-to-video strategy, which I think means a lot of different things, depending on the site (recall, I am very bad at business). For Vice and Uproxx and some others, it’s meant filling a void in documentary content. While I certainly don’t think it should mean reducing editorial staff, best I can tell over on Uproxx, editorial and video can not only co-exist, but greatly benefit each other.
Click here to watch Us Against the World, but give yourself a couple of hours, because you’re likely to get sucked in.