The meteoric rise of pro-basketball star Jeremy Lin—an Asian-American point guard who came seemingly out of nowhere last year to galvanize both the struggling New York Knicks and New York City itself—is an undoubtably inspiring story, but not just as a sports-underdog tale. Asians living in America have often had to deal with being perceived by other cultures as being passive and submissive, so Lin’s tale carries an additional layer of resonance as a middle finger to such stereotypes. His career arc already offers something of a foolproof formula for cinematic treatment, most notably a classically uplifting triumph-over-adversity narrative. To his credit, Evan Jackson Leong, director of Linsanity, a new biographical documentary portrait of Lin, seems to recognize this and thus not only allows Lin’s story to largely speak for itself, but also uses it as a springboard to address the underlying racial issues.
In some ways, Lin’s biography already contains elements that defy Asian stereotypes: chiefly, a father who passed on his love of basketball to his son and a mother who, going against tiger-mother expectations, was actually a driving force in encouraging her son to aim for the National Basketball Association in the first place. Nevertheless, Lin’s rise to the top was, at least as Leong frames it in the film, not only a personal struggle, but a cultural one as well. It’s bad enough that, even as a basketball star in Harvard, he still had to face racist jeers from supposedly more enlightened Ivy League crowd members, but when the Knicks pass over him in the 2010 NBA draft, friends, mentors, and cultural commentators in the film speculate that this may simply have been a result of Asians not being traditionally thought of as NBA stars.
Despite Leong’s occasional detours framing Lin’s success against this cultural background, Linsanity is Lin’s story, first and foremost. In that regard, the film is serviceable at best, overly hagiographic at worst. Lin is a devout Christian, as anyone who has taken one look at his Facebook page can see; Leong’s occasional interpolations of “heavenly” sequences of Lin playing basketball against CGI backdrops offer a hokey visual analogue for the intersection of faith and sports in his life. Other slow-motion scenes of Lin doing his thing solo on a desolate basketball court, against impeccably shot backgrounds, offer further indications of Leong’s essentially starry-eyed view of his subject. Still, for those who somehow missed out on the hoopla last year or others who simply want to remember what it was all about, Linsanity functions well enough as a memento. And even if the film is perhaps a bit too insistent in its hero worship, Leong is at least intelligent enough to acknowledge that the fight to counter Asian-American stereotypes goes on, even with Lin’s recent, heartening triumphs.