They Call Me Magic captures Magic Johnson’s pivot to humanitarian [Apple TV+ review]

Apple TV+’s latest documentary series is They Call Me Magic, a look at the life and legacy of one of the greatest and most flashy basketball players the game ever saw.

Director Rick Famuyiwa gives us a guided tour of Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr.’s game, the illness that took him out of professional sports, and the family members — both professional and blood — who made his life hard but worth living. The documentary’s form is digestible and the story is a necessary window into living memory, to see at once how far we’ve come and how little we’ve changed.

They Call Me Magic review

They Call Me Magic is a four-part documentary series about the basketball Hall of Famer, starting from the very beginning: his birth in Lansing, Michigan, in 1959. Between the kids his mother and father produced, and the kids from his dad’s previous marriage, Johnson had nine siblings.

He was a born basketball player. He had to fight to get to the game, being shipped across town to a school without a good basketball program thanks to redlining, but he didn’t let that stop him from achieving his goals. Johnson worked hard every day and played his best on the court despite the racism of his white teammates.

From college ball to the NBA

Johnson went to Michigan State University, so he was able to stay close to his family while he finished schooling and became a legend of college ball. He was recruited by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979. And, thanks in no small part to team captain and center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s height and agility, they changed the fortunes of the team.

Kareem and Magic turned the Lakers into the team people love today. Kareem was an incredible scorer. And thanks to Magic’s unparalleled ability to pass without the other team reading his body language (his world-famous “no-look pass”), the pair proved unstoppable.

However, Kareem injured himself before game six of the 1980 NBA World Championship Series against the Philadelphia 76ers (and their own legendary player, Julius “Dr. J” Erving). With Kareem sidelined, Magic racked up 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in a 123–107 win. People still regard it as one of the most impressive single-game performances in the history of basketball.

Magic Johnson tests HIV-positive

Johnson’s life would have been an ordinary, if stellar one, with one hell of a career in basketball (he was getting ready to show upstart Chicago Bull Michael Jordan a thing or two) except for one life-changing disaster.

Johnson was a famous womanizer, despite a year’s-long courtship and engagement to Earlitha “Cookie” Kelly. They were long-distance for most of that time, and Johnson would later say his social diet included frequent orgies. All that casual sex left him with a frazzled wife and a diagnosis that seemed like a death sentence. He contracted HIV, and it’s only due to luck that he didn’t pass it to Cookie while she was pregnant with the first of their three children.

Johnson took his time announcing the diagnosis, knowing that this was not a kind world for people with AIDS. President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary laughed openly when it was suggested at a briefing that the president take the disease seriously. It was a “gay disease” and this country was not gay-friendly. It’s still not, but it was a hundred times worse when people were dying of AIDS and no one with a public profile wanted to humanize the people suffering and dying by the thousands.

When Johnson told the world he was leaving the Lakers because he was HIV-positive, he was treated as a pariah. Karl Malone was the most famous homophobe of the bunch, stating he didn’t want to go toe-to-toe with Johnson (because Johnson’s blood might wind up in Malone’s mouth on the court). But he was hardly the only one.

Johnson pivots to destigmatizing AIDS

Johnson was crestfallen, but he had grown too used to the roar of the crowd to simply step aside and let people have their say about him. He went on the The Arsenio Hall Show and Oprah to discuss his sex life. Sure, there was some sense of his having to disprove his homosexuality to the homophobic establishment. But also, he didn’t want straight men thinking they couldn’t catch the disease. If everyone just kept having unprotected sex, there would be a lot more infected people.

Johnson became a national spokesman for the crisis. He ultimately changed a lot of hearts and minds, and probably saved countless lives by destigmatizing the illness as much as anyone could. Johnson rejoined the NBA for a bit, became an Olympic all-star player, and then changed course.

He became an entrepreneur, building movie theaters and Starbucks in black Los Angeles neighborhoods, buying a controlling interest in the Dodgers, and starting the Magic Johnson Foundation to help communities by promoting and rewarding innovation with seed money and attention.

He knows the law, he knows the truth

If that feels like a lot of “plot,” so to speak, it’s because They Call Me Magic It consists of little else. Director Rick Famuyiwa basically gets out of the way and lets his roster of guest stars (ranging from sports commentators and Johnson’s high school friends and siblings, to several former presidents of the United States) tell the tale of “Magic.”

Famuyiwa became a surprise star in 2015 when his fourth feature film Dope caused a stir at the Sundance Film Festival and led to a couple of high-profile gigs. There’s nothing wrong with his early work, and heaven knows Brown Sugar and The Wood have their defenders. (I’m probably the only person who routinely thinks about Our Family Weddinga very charming movie I never finished watching) but Dope got him on the A list.

He directed a not terribly distinguished movie about the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings called Confirmation, and then the pilot episode of The Chi and a raft of episodes of The Mandalorian. He also did some kind of short project whatsit for the game Fortnite.

A mixed bag, is how you might describe Famuyiwa’s work lately. But They Call Me Magic is certainly told with enthusiasm. (That’s more than I can say for the 10 minutes of The Mandalorian I’ve seen.)

A fast, fresh approach to documentary

In the Apple TV+ docuseries, Famuyiwa does something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. (Maybe it’s just been long enough that it feels like a fresh idea.) He essentially begins the story sometime in the middle of the middle. Indeed, basically in the middle of a story of one game, as if we’d been watching for an hour already, before eventually doubling back to tell the story from the beginning.

Famuyiwa knows what parts of the story we’re here to see. So They Call Me Magic Only fleetingly involves the rags-to-riches narrative Johnson so embodies. The editing strategies resembles one of Johnson’s no-look passes. The series jumps right to where it needs to go at any given moment.

The film is all talking heads and archival footage, so it’s important to keep the pace up. Otherwise, four hours of one man’s life could easily start to drag. But between the Terence Blanchard score, the seven editors working behind the scenes, and the natural charisma of Johnson and the people in his life, this thing move.

The rest of the Magic Johnson story

Johnson becoming a millionaire wasn’t a part of the story I had any familiarity with. So it was nice to see that — on the back of being diagnosed with a stigmatizing and life-threatening illness — he became not just an inspirational figure to millions, but a better person. He used his image (as well as his own money and resources) to fight AIDS in the public conscience.

His son EJ came out in his adolescence, and Johnson confesses to not having taken it well. However, he realized he was the one who needed to change, not his boy.

It’s extremely refreshing to see the story of a guy who almost had everything taken away and became magnanimous in the wake of it. Despite not shying away from the many, many ways Johnson pushed people away in his youth, They Call Me Magic is honestly inspirational stuff, as much as the story of anyone with a net worth you can’t count can be.

I’d have loved a little more pushback from Famuyiwa on a couple of subjects. However, you don’t get President Barack Obama to show up for a movie with a more stern agenda about the subject. And frankly? They Call Me Magic proves very entertaining. Johnson truly comes across as someone who wants to make the world a better place. So I don’t mind how nice the series is to him.

Watch They Call Me Magic on Apple TV+

They Call Me Magic premieres April 22 on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

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