Starring: Jeanette Lee; Sonja Lee; Doris Lee
Directed by: Ursula Liang
Distributor: ESPN Films
Jeanette Lee is a Korean-American former professional pool player who (to use a Leeism here) took the sport by its balls in the mid-90s. She earned the nickname ‘The Black Widow’ for her ferocious competitive spirit. Jeanette Lee Vs. is a documentary from director Ursula Liang that offers a glimpse of the fire that drove Lee at a young age to win at the highest level and as well the cold water that tried to put her out as a woman trying to break into a male-dominated sport.
There’s an implied “Me Against the World” mentality about the seemingly incomplete title that makes sense once we’ve spent some time with the subject. It’s an allusion to the social dynamics Lee often found herself combatting, at least at first, positioned against just about everybody — certainly the men who leered, but also her female peers who weren’t entirely thrilled about the amount of attention Lee’s meteoric rise and TV coverage garnered. As the film evolves beyond competition, the playful nature of its title also takes on a much weightier significance.
It’s not a particularly in-depth treatment but there’s enough to give the layperson a good sense of Lee’s mental fortitude and physical toughness, for the odds were stacked against her in ways beyond societal prejudice. While Lee reflects upon the emotional challenges of growing up as a child of Korean immigrants in Brooklyn, the documentary becomes more a testimony to corporeal suffering. Of all the things she has experienced in her life, from a father who walked out on the family when she was five, to being subjected to Jimmy Kimmel’s masturbatory enthusiasm on The Man Show, it’s her own body that’s been most unkind.
Scoliosis from when she was 13 left her feeling alienated and in constant pain. Yet discomfort was no match for her desire to move on from her directionless teen years and start beating the men at their own game in pool halls across the country. As a 50-year-old Lee describes to camera the myriad ailments it has also caused, her similarly numerous achievements seem all the less likely.
That she managed to not just be competitive at a high level — racking up more than 30 national and international titles over a career spanning 24 years — but came to dominate a sport that requires physical poise and intense mental focus, all the while helping to raise the profile of the women’s game, is an act of defiance as much as it has been a catalyst for inclusivity.
In bringing us up to speed on her current battle with terminal cancer, the film takes a more emotional turn. Yet a pity party never materializes despite extensive, behind-the-curtains footage capturing Lee at her most vulnerable and introspective. Family members and former opponents alike contribute to a sense of communal support for ‘The Black Widow,’ but it is Lee the straight-shooting interviewee, especially as she speculates about the uncertainty of the future, that elevates this narrowly-focused documentary into the realm of general audience appeal.
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Moral of the Story: On one well-manicured hand, it feels like director Ursula Liang could have gone into greater detail about Lee’s playing days, particularly the tension among members of the WPBA (Women’s Professional Billiards Association) as she came to prominence and took self-promotion to a whole new level. On the other hand, it is yet more proof of the range of stories 30 for 30 can cover. And it isn’t just the fact it’s a niche sport that makes it feel different. Available to stream on ESPN+.
Running Time: 51 mins.
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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com