Review: ‘Warriors of Liberty City’ offers an intimate look at an inner-city football program

Television Critic

‘Warriors of Liberty City,” a new six-part documentary series about an inner-city youth football program, is one of the best reasons to turn on a television this new fall season.

Inspiring without being inspirational, dramatic without being dishonest, it has points it wants to make about work and commitment, parents and children, but never at the expense of things that might complicate its message.

The show, which debuts Sunday on Starz, is handsomely made with vivid, unpredictable characters strung along old-fashioned thrill-of-victory, agony-of-defeat storylines. It might even make your life a little better.

Liberty City is a poor and working-class Miami neighborhood, a small town within a sprawling city. (Towers loom in what seems like an impassable distance.) It’s notable on the one hand for gang violence, and the practical and emotional toll it takes on the people who live alongside it, and on the other for producing a number of professional football players.

And more than a few of them — including NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson and Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson — have come through the Liberty City Optimist Club, a sports program established in 1991 by Luther Campbell of the once-notorious “Nasty As They Wanna Be” rap group, 2 Live Crew. (The football program is affiliated with Pop Warner; other sports and academic tutoring are offered as well.)


With LeBron James as an executive producer, the series – produced by Evan Rosenfeld and with cinematography by Ryan Nethery, who brings a sensitivity to light, to the night, to weather and skin – “Warriors” grew out of an earlier short film. “Rivals: The Boom Squad,” which opened the Viceland series “Vice World of Sports,” focused on one of the program’s younger teams.

While it is stressed that high school football and the Warriors program have helped keep some kids from becoming “statistics,” and the earlier crossfire death of 6-year-old teammate is memorialized with jerseys bearing his name, violence hovers outside the action and the story is bigger than football.

The title can be taken to refer to everyone in Liberty City, Warriors and warriors alike, trying to do better for their families, for themselves, trying to move up, trying to move out, trying to choose wisely, or at least not rashly.

Television usually — that is, nearly always – visits neighborhoods like Liberty City only as a crime scene, or to embody failure, a place where no one wants to live. But people do live there, and one perhaps not incidental effect of “Warriors of Liberty City” is to remind the luckier viewer that even in failing places, there are signal successes and ordinary delights.

Besides the football — and an equally intense dance-cheerleading competition that provides a female counterpoint — it’s a show about the jobs people do, the rooms they live in. It goes into classrooms, examination rooms, barber shops, the laundromat and church. It’s about the absence or presence of parents, of supplementary and surrogate fathers, of those who have turned their lives around, and people whose lives keep turning until they’re back where they started.

It’s about the seriousness of little kids, the wandering attention of bigger ones and the different seriousness of older ones — specifically the taciturn, talented Chatarius “Tutu” Atwell Jr., starting quarterback at Miami Northwestern Senior High School, on whom the community has decided everything depends.

And a hurricane blows through it.

Six hours allows the filmmakers to spend time in scenes, soaking in the atmosphere and letting characters ripen, whether it’s a father helping his daughter practice for track and football, a party too successful for its own good, a kid who wants a dog as he plays with a stranger’s, or another’s phone call with his incarcerated father.

Like all the best documentaries, it shows you something new and challenges what you think you knew.

“The hardest thing growing up in Liberty City,” says 13-year-old Destiny Martinez, a Warrior cheerleader and athlete, “is that people who don’t live in Liberty City, they think all of us are the same, like ghetto, fighting all the time… It makes me angry because you don’t know me. How you going to say something about me if you don’t know me?”

More like this, please.


Review: ESPN’s ‘Venus Vs.’ highlights Venus Williams’ fighting spirit

Television review: ‘Straight Outta L.A.’

NBC’s ‘Rise’ hits high notes in melodrama, high school musical theater

ESPN’s ‘Monday Night Football’ was missing a few things, mainly chemistry

2 Live Crew’s ‘Fresh Kid Ice,’ pioneer for Asian rappers, dies at 53

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd