Silence as Protest – Filmmaker David Shields on Lynch: A History

In David Shields’ new documentary, Lynch: A History, the film’s subject is actually something of an absence. The hero, though he’s very much alive, well, and a public figure, appears only in archival footage. Marshawn Lynch, the twice-retired running back who played most recently for his hometown Oakland Raiders, spent his time in the NFL pissing off fans and press alike for his reluctance to participate in the media attention naturally visited on celebrity players. His indifference so riled sports commentators that they spun Lynch’s personality into the primary story of his fame.

Shields’ film, his first as director (he’s better known as an author of over 20 books) interrogates the relationship between Lynch and the media, and evaluates Lynch’s silence as a radical form of protest, one that’s in conversation with Colin Kaepernick’s more vocal and specific protests. The film is a collage of existing footage of Marshawn from his early days as a high school athlete through to his post-NFL life, contextualized against the American media’s hostility toward black celebrity as well as the still-present legacy of white supremacy in every corner of our society. Like the subject at its center, Lynch defies classification – it’s a tone poem, a visual essay, a politically-charged highlights reel, a tribute to a player of massive significance and a polemic against a media machine that runs off of black pain and black success in equal measure.

FRONTRUNNER spoke to David Shields about how the film came together, why the story compelled him to the medium, and what its reluctant star thinks about it.

Lynch: A History (2019)
Film still
Dir. David Shields
Photo credit: Dave Sizer

What was the genesis of the film? Did you start from a point of wanting to make a documentary about Marshawn Lynch, or did you begin from the larger thesis about the position of black athletes in American culture?

Originally, I had worked with James Franco and Keegan-Michael Key in attempting to adapt my book Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season into a film, but when those laudable attempts came to an end, I realized that I could and should explore the same material—American history, race, American media representation of black athletes, theater of sports as a reflecting pool for buried American history—via the figure of Marshawn Lynch. I was living in Seattle and I was in thrall to him as an athlete and as a savvy underminer.

How much footage did you go through to arrive at the 80 or so minutes that make up the film?

The film is 84 minutes long and consist of about 700 clips. I can’t even begin to contemplate how much footage I and my editors—especially James Nugent, who was the principal editor—went through. The film took us 4 years, and it cost me about $125,000. At one point the film was 5 hours long. At one point we had perhaps 20 hours of footage.

You’ve been a writer for most of your career. What was it about film that made it the right medium to tell this story?

In a way, the film began when I was overwhelmed by Marshawn Lynch’s performance during Media Week leading up to Super Bowl 48 [in 2014.] I was aware of his massive chops as a performance artist, but this 5-minute non-interview interview changed something profoundly in how America tells itself stories about itself. I wanted to render all of this in video. I wanted to capture the performance of it all. As Laurie Stone said to me about the great performance artists of the 1980s, they don’t explain, they don’t apologize, and they don’t ask for love. That is Marshawn.

The film posits that Marshawn Lynch’s relationship with the media is a form of protest: silence as its own message. I think you make the case well, but did you worry about potentially reading into that which isn’t there in the same way sports media has tried to over-analyze him?

That’s a good question, and it’s one that I took seriously and constantly asked myself: are we doing the very thing that we’re criticizing? We showed the film-in-progress to a wide range of football players, coaches, sports commentators, African-American cultural critics, etc, etc, to get their take. It was important to us that we not impose voiceover narration or any too paraphrasable thesis. I thought for sure the film would end for a variety of reasons: legal, ethical, financial, artistic. Finally, it seemed more important to try to make a contribution to Black Lives Matter than to worry if every single person would love it. The response has been almost universally positive.

Your book Reality Hunger calls for a new mode of thinking around genre and appropriation, coming out in favor of mixing and repurposing and blurring the lines in a way most popular cinema still resists. Lynch seems to defy genre in a similar way. How did you approach it in terms of structure and style?

I think that’s exactly right. Reality Hunger is in a way the theory (it’s also the practice). But there is a sense in which Lynch is the very thing that Reality Hunger theorizes. There is hardly a move the film makes that Reality Hunger doesn’t talk about. Other books of mine and films (and films in progress) feel Reality Hunger-esque, but Lynch is about as Reality Hunger as its gets, including of course how wedded to the real Lynch himself it is.

Did you ever consider following a more traditional doc-style?

We constantly told ourselves, “No Ken Burns. No sense that we’re watching television or a game. Make it feel like the viewer is trapped inside a GoPro camera attached to Marshawn Lynch’s helmet during BeastQuake3.0.”

I read that Marshawn is aware of the film, but obviously he’s not in it in any new content. Did you consider trying to get him involved, or was your intention always to use only pre-existing footage of him?

From the very beginning, I approached Marshawn via his representatives, who for four years had the same response: Marshawn didn’t care to participate, but he wouldn’t block the film, either. I approached Marshawn’s sports agent and entertainment agent nearly every month, to keep them up to date and see if they wanted to reconsider.

Do you know if he’s seen the film?

This is the first time I’ve told anyone the following: after two screenings in Oakland on August 7 with Michael Smith and Dr. Harry Edwards, I was standing outside the New Parkway Theater with Michael and a few other people. It was around 10 pm. Someone dropped off Marshawn and the rapper Mistah F.A.B. and idled the car. Marshawn got out of the car and came over, standing very close to me. It took me a moment to recognize him, or I did recognize him, but it took me a while to process it all. Wearing a gray-and-black sweat suit, he was a little smaller than I had pictured him. I introduced myself to him and shook his hand.

He said, “How was it?” I took him to mean how did the screenings go, but I wasn’t sure what to say, so I said, “I’m the director. I loved it. What else am I gonna say?” In that very Marshawn way, he asked me again, “How was it?” I said, “People loved it. People love you. The movie is a love song to you.” None of this is verbatim, it’s my best attempt to remember what we said. He asked me, “How did you make the movie without me?” At first, I thought this was meant as criticism, but he asked me a variation of it a few times, and it became clear that the gist of it was more like, That’s sort of a neat trick—how did you pull it off? (This other sense was probably present, too, at least a little bit.)


We talked at length about how many times I had sent the film to his sports agent and to his entertainment agent. The answer from his various representatives had always been the same: We won’t participate, but we won’t impede you, either. A couple of months ago I sent a vimeo link of the film to Marshawn’s entertainment agent, at the agent’s request, and now I asked Marshawn if he had watched it and what he thought; he said, “I wanted to hate on you, but I couldn’t, ’cause you did a good job with it.”

I asked Marshawn if it was odd to watch a film about yourself—in effect, home movies that many people would now watch. This question didn’t yield much of a response, perhaps because it was such a stupid question. I repeated my sense that the film was a labor of love, a love song to him, that it was about how he uses silence as a form of protest, as a sort of mute rage, and that I connected with that, because I’m full of rage, too.

What’s the reaction been like from football fans, or fans of Marshawn’s career, who are maybe less interested in the specific message you’re conveying? Have you heard from anyone who’s gone in expecting a sports documentary and was shocked or upset by the case you’re making?

We’ve shown the film all across America now, and it’s online now. We’ve shown it in Amsterdam, and it’s going to be showing in London, Vienna, Stockholm, Sydney. I’ve seen a few people walk out. They’re often wearing football jerseys. I’ve seen one or two comments online in which a fan finds that the film isn’t their grandfather’s biopic or their father’s sports pic. The value of a work of art can be measured by the harm spoken of it, as Flaubert says.

Lynch: A History (2019)
Film still
Dir. David Shields
Photo credit: Andrew Tat

Lynch: A History is now available online.

Related Articles