“Uppity” has it all, at least by documentary standards.
The saga of race car driver Willy T. Ribbs features racism, car crashes, triumphs, tragedies and two of the most tabloid-friendly figures of the decade.
Bill Cosby and Caitlyn Jenner.
“Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story,” available now on Netflix, still garnered almost no consideration from the media or film critics. This review is the first to be shared at RottenTomatoes.com.
Producer/director Adam Carolla warned podcaster Chris Stigall why. Carolla’s name alone, he says, drove the media away.
Don’t make the same mistake. “Uppity” adds another valuable title to Carolla’s growing cache of car-related films. It doubles as a tale of strength and determination in the face of institutional evil.
Willy T. Ribbs didn’t set out to change sports culture or see his mug on a Wheaties box. He just loved to drive, an impulse that set in early and never quit. The early scenes showing how his parents nurtured that passion are a quiet portrait of familial tough love and understanding.
No one could hold Ribbs back. Oh, did they try, though.
The driver soon ran afoul of old school racism, leaning on his grandfather’s essential truths to battle back. In the process, Ribbs gave racing fans of all colors a charismatic sports hero to cheer.
Not everyone saw it that way.
Some called him “uppity,” and much worse, names he laughs at now. Ribbs refused to let his critics get the best of him. He let his driving speak for him. And, occasionally, his fists.
FAST FACT: “Uppity” is mostly PG in its presentation, making it an engaging way for families to digest the nation’s “original sin.” A few curses are spoken during the film, though, including Ribbs letting loose with a couple of “F-bombs” in describing a key moment in his life.
Ribbs gleaned some of his mannerisms from Muhammad Ali, who taught the young driver to stand tall against adversity. Ribbs even channeled some of Ali’s brash style, shuffling atop cars when he came in first place.
Which was often.
“Uppity” captures it all, and in doing so doesn’t overplay the racial narratives. It’s not woke nor a series of lectures. It’s history told by Ribbs himself. He’s a blunt storyteller, and Team Carolla assembles a who’s who of the racing world to have his back.
Think Unsers. Lots of Unsers.
The film’s final third isn’t as thrilling, perhaps because the lessons learned already can only be repeated. The racing world wouldn’t give Ribbs an inch, so he kept fighting for respect, and dignity, and the right to drive a car as fast as humanly possible.
In the process he changed the sport for the better.
Perhaps a broader look at the evolving culture would have helped. Ribbs came of age during the 1980s, a time when race factored less in the country, unless you hailed from the American South.
For every face eager to curse his very existence stood another willing to give him a chance. Enter comic superstar Bill Cosby, who helped fund Ribbs’ remarkable rise.
The film’s Jenner anecdote isn’t as consequential, but it adds texture to a story already teeming with it.
Carolla and co-producer/director Nate Adams don’t demonize Ribbs’ critics. Instead, they let Ribbs himself shape the narrative. And he has plenty to say on the injustices he endured as well as the minutiae behind modern motor sports.
Best of all, Carolla and Adams pepper us with insider details without losing mainstream audiences. You don’t have to love auto racing to cheer on “Uppity,” just a fondness for heroes willing to do the right thing.
HiT or Miss: “Uppity” is a first class biography, one today’s teens should watch to learn about our past and the power of positive thought.