Like movie stars and politicians, sports figures are molded early on to fit a certain type of persona. After all, it's much easier to sell memorabilia and garner corporate advertising deals if people feel comfortable rooting for you. Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis challenged this process at every turn during a 12-year career that spanned the 1970s, speaking freely about controversial issues while exhibiting a flashy and highfalutin sense of style. He destroyed the façade that most athletes present on the field, revealing a revolutionary personality that had its share of demons to go along with all that exuberance.
No No: A Dockumentary traces Ellis' roller-coaster life, spending a good deal of time exploring the consequences that drug addiction had on his career. The film's symbolic center occurs on June 12, 1970, when Ellis threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres while apparently high on LSD.
Director Jeffrey Radice never sentimentalizes or demonizes his outspoken and troubled subject, instead positioning Ellis as a focal point in a grander triangular study of baseball's troubled history with narcotics, societal tension and identity. Within this spectrum, his personal and professional lives intertwine seamlessly, one informing the other at every rocky turn.
Ellis grew up in Compton, California, before rising to fame with the Pirates as an intimidating hurler. His childhood isn't of huge importance to Radice; aside from a few talking-head interviews with family and neighborhood friends, this time period in Ellis' life gets mostly a surface-level treatment. What can be gleaned from this early section is the man's fearless and volatile personality, a desire to "stir shit up," as one outspoken interviewee notes. Look no further than when Ellis would wear curlers in his hair, subverting dress-code regulations while also providing ample amounts of saliva for his infamous spitball.
But this act of defiance had more to do with challenging the way minorities were presented by Major League Baseball. It was a strategic (and savvy) effort to stand out from the crowd and diminish the cookie-cutter view of black athletes. Early in the film, Ellis' first wife, Paula Hartsfield Johnson, touches on this pervasive contradiction between perception and reality: "There were a lot of things that, when you looked at a baseball game, you didn't see."
One of Major League Baseball's most notorious secrets hiding in plain sight was its players' drug use. No No interviews many of Ellis' teammates, including slugger Al Oliver, who confirms that, at the time, upwards of 90 percent of baseball players took some kind of enhancing substance. In this sense, the 1970s stands as a mirror to the cocaine epidemic that hit athletes in the 1980s and the steroid years to follow. Radice finds blame both with the players and league field managers, general managers and owners for profiting off a culture of denial and culpability.
Considering the film's journalistic dive into the way baseball reflected some of the shifting cultural trends in America at the time, it's impressive that Radice's style sways more personal in the final act. Retiring after the close of the 1979 season, Ellis struggled with alcohol and drug addiction before sobering up and working as a counselor for youth offenders until he died in 2008. Hearing from the many people whom Ellis helped in his final stage of life is a moving experience.
No No: A Dockumentary— which opens Friday, Sept. 5, at Reading Gaslamp Cinemas—walks a fine line between portrait and historical record, leaving room for revisionism between the lines. Ellis, consistently a player and man who destroyed the limits of control placed on him by his given medium, would have admired the film's openness to the way history reflects the present day, and vice versa.