November 10, 2023
Review: ‘Unapologetic’ shows Candace Parker at her most vulnerable on her journey to self-acceptance
Joie Jacoby’s film struggled balancing more memorable emotional scenes and set pieces alongside chronicling Candace Parker’s career
NEW YORK — Candace Parker grew up with a nickname that represented the type of career she would build. “Can do,” short for “can do anything,” was a play on her name just as much as it was an avenue for the high expectations that she would carry throughout her entire life. She’s won titles at every level of the game of basketball. She’s won multiple MVP awards. She’s one of the most compelling broadcasters on television. She’s an ambassador for Adidas with multiple collections. She’s a parent of two children.
But in “Unapologetic,” a documentary about Parker directed by Joie Jacoby, a longtime producer who worked on multiple iterations of the ESPY awards, viewers are pulled behind the curtain and experience something Parker struggled to do for so long, just be intrinsically herself. The film premiered at the DOC NYC festival prior to its television premiere on ESPN this Sunday, Nov. 12 at 9 p.m. ET.
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The film asks and grapples with the essential questions of why Parker was so guarded during most of her career and how she’s reached a moment in her life where she doesn’t care what people think and can live with impenitence.
That is the mission of the 77 minute film that toggles between trying to make sure viewers know the chronological journey of the film’s subject alongside the much more compelling hero’s journey that she goes on. It’s a mission that is incredibly ambitious, but falls short in fleshing out the vulnerable moments that the film has been publicized around. It leaves the viewer questioning and trying to piece together exactly how Parker got to a moment where she’s so much more comfortable telling her detractors to go buzz off or in her words go “kick rocks.”
To tell the history of Parker’s story, Jacoby rightfully used Parker’s hometown of Napperville, IL as a set of bookends for the film. The film opens when Parker visits her old childhood home during the 2022 WNBA season. She’s greeted by a queer couple that welcomes her inside. That coincidence had intent and foreshadowed what was ahead in telling Parker’s story.
The body of the film is sprinkled with archival footage that Parker’s mother Sara provided. She filmed her daughter playing basketball with her father and brothers as a child and even had photos of Parker involved in other extracurriculars such as when she had one line in the school play. And that familial documentation continued when Parker had her first child Lailaa Nicole Williams and took the little one around the world during the WNBA offseason.
There are some moments that will grab headlines such as the scene where Parker’s longtime friend Justine Brown tells the story about how she had to Fed Ex Parker a pregnancy test prior to finding out that Parker was indeed pregnant with Lailaa. Another attention grabbing comment, thought not a surprising one, was when Parker admitted to being told to abort her first child. The fact that Parker returned to the court less than three months after giving birth illustrates where the WNBA was in 2009, over a decade prior to the 2020 CBA that provides players out on maternity leave their entire salary. Although, even in 2023, issues remain across the WNBA when it comes to pregnancy and motherhood. Dearica Hamby’s EEOC complaint against the WNBA and Parker’s most recent team the Las Vegas Aces looms in the background.
The most clear picture of Parker’s struggles came when the film dove into 2016, a time in her life when her legendary coach and second mother Pat Summitt passed away from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, she separated and then divorced her daughter’s father Shelden Williams, and then won her first WNBA championship. The memorable clip of Parker shouting through her tears “This is for Pat” to ESPN’s Holly Rowe was accompanied with the appropriate amount of context.
The film reminds the viewer that at an incredible high for Parker, winning her first WNBA championship, she was still dealing with a mountain of loss and grief. At one point the film points to young Lailaa asking her mother if she was happy. The film didn’t formally answer that question, but the context surrounding it did.
Parker’s journey toward finding that happiness throughout the film reaches its most memorable when her former overseas teammate and eventual wife Anna Petrakova is introduced. Parker’s queer identity was something that for many years she kept out of the public eye. The film crew documented the entire process when Parker finally came out to the world on Instagram celebrating her two year anniversary with her wife who she married privately in 2019. There was a giddiness and collective apprehension that Parker exuded when she was creating that post. She began drafting in the notes app and noted that maybe she should have read the post over one more time before pressing the button that opened her life up to the world.
The film played the couple’s wedding video which included Parker’s vows where she was so nervous she subconsciously said to Petrakova that she marvels in her wife’s “booty” rather than “beauty.” Parker was visibly embarrassed.
When the couple told the origin of their love story, that was a moment when the film slowed down. It took its time instead of getting caught up in the frenetic timeline of all the moments prior. Parker’s retelling of how she used to talk to her brother Anthony about Petrakova had a sweetness and a sadness to it. She struggled to use pronouns while Petrakova at first struggled to even admit what was happening. She rejected Parker’s feelings for her at first.
Parker doesn’t divulge much about her coming out process and how she might have repressed her sexuality earlier on in her life. But she does explain how she doesn’t like being put in a box or being expected to do or wear certain things because she’s queer. It was her choice to wear that white suit to WNBA Draft day, while her mother wanted her in a dress.
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A scene that was spritzed into the film was a discussion between Parker, Petrakova and their family and friends about traditional gender roles. They question the notion of who the “man” or the “woman” is in same sex relationships. It’s a brief scene that could have been longer and was much more interesting than some of the other scenes placed in the film.
When Parker was discussing failing to win back-to-back championships with the Sky, it almost seemed a bit dull and as a matter of fact. The emotion that she exuded at other points of the film during the documentary’s most compelling set pieces was drained. What purpose did this scene serve?
Besides moving through Parker’s story like an online bio, what purpose did the scenes about the infamous player poll from The Athletic which deemed Parker the WNBA’s most overrated player or her rift with USA Basketball have if it wasn’t going to go deeper and reveal more of what that left on Parker? Her separation and divorce from her daughter’s father Shelden Williams was mentioned but what was the impact? How did that lead her to where she is now?
While Parker told Doug Feinberg of the AP that she didn’t want the documentary to “badmouth” people like the voters in the poll, former USAB head coach Geno Auriemma or her ex-husband, these scenes in particular in film didn’t show why those frustrating situations mattered in the arc of her story and in her journey of finding self acceptance.
While “Unapologetic” catches Parker as apprehensive, embarrassed and at times as a hopeless romantic, those eye opening scenes filled with emotions we’ve rarely seen exude are crowded out by the chronological telling of her storied career. This is something that has become common in films about women’s basketball as of late: since the sport has been under-covered for so long, filmmakers try to squeeze too much information in and leave the final product bloated and stale.
Parker’s skillset and professional portfolio changed the way women’s basketball is forever played and perceived. Her game has always been unapologetic. She handles the ball like a guard. She protects the rim like a post. Her game is one you cannot put into a box. She exudes confidence when in photoshoots for Adidas or in the studio analyzing basketball.
It was clearly a much greater challenge for Parker to apply that same principle and be as self-assured about her personal life. And that’s the heart of the film, and its most compelling: the people who helped her get there. I just wish there was more of it.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.