During the 2013 season, Marshawn Lynch, who was then the star running back of the Seattle Seahawks, stopped speaking on the record to the media. Most professional athletes treat their media obligations as a compulsory nuisance; some convey their annoyance by being terse or snarky. Lynch, who is known for his bruising play and his carefree spirit, began to give reporters the same uninformative answers over and over: “Thanks for asking,” “I’m thankful,” “Yeah.” Sometimes he wore a ski mask over his mouth. It seemed eccentric, and he was fined tens of thousands of dollars by the N.F.L. for blowing off mandatory press scrums. He continued to stonewall reporters for the next couple of seasons. During a packed media event leading up to the 2015 Super Bowl, surrounded by hundreds of reporters, he joked, “I’m just here so I won’t get fined, bro.”
Lynch was wealthy enough that he could have fun with his choice to opt out, and pay the fines as necessary. But a black athlete’s insubordination, particularly when it is public, is rarely apolitical, and many wondered if there were deeper motivations behind Lynch’s silence that he was declining to elaborate. He was not inherently camera-shy, after all: he was a willing and hammy spokesperson for his favorite candy, Skittles, and a boisterous guest on late-night talk shows. He even made guest appearances on sitcoms, including “The League” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Lynch’s silence came to register as an expression of power—a way of controlling his own narrative by refusing to offer one.
The documentary “Lynch: A History,” which recently premièred at the Seattle International Film Festival, consists entirely of footage of and about Lynch, edited together from a dizzying range of sources: interviews, game footage, TV commercials, news reports about Lynch’s native Oakland, cable news, even YouTube reaction clips to his plays. At one point we see Lynch as a high-school kid, appearing on a local cable-access sports show; he wilts when offered the chance to talk to one of the Oakland Raiders. The host tries to put him at ease: “Don’t be shy, bruh.” But Lynch just fidgets with the microphone and smiles serenely. In another clip, he softly describes a cherished memory: the day that he committed to attend the University of California, Berkeley. “A lot of people didn’t think I was going to college,” he says, and the film cuts to an image of an opposing fan holding up a sign: “If Marshawn Lynch can get into Cal than anyone can!” He was a star at Cal, spry enough to twirl and evade would-be tacklers, and powerful enough to blast through defensive lines. He ran with swagger.
The documentary was directed by David Shields, who is better known as an author, and who lives in Seattle. Shields published his first novel, “Heroes,” in 1984; it’s a fairly conventional book, about an aging Iowa sports writer who is enamored with a young college basketball player but suspicious of the circumstances that brought him from the South Side of Chicago to their sleepy community. In the mid-nineties, Shields decided that traditional forms of writing were insufficient for comprehending contemporary culture. He started inserting himself into his work as a character and began experimenting with collage and pastiche. In 2010, he published “Reality Hunger,” which interspersed his riffs about the fragmentation of modern society and our desire to find real life in art with unattributed quotes taken from other writers and thinkers. “I’m not interested in myself per se,” he wrote. “I’m interested in myself as theme carrier, as host.” He made little effort in the book to distinguish who had said what, and presented this practice as an argument about the eroding distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, authors and their sources of inspiration. He was also after an aesthetic effect: he wanted to luxuriate in the disorienting jumbles and weird velocities of life nowadays.
“Lynch” feels like the culmination of Shields’s career. On one hand, film offers a more arresting medium than writing for sampling and juxtaposing different sources. But the film’s subject also calls to mind Shields’s 1999 book, “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season,” which drew on his personal diaries and obsessive game notes, as well as basketball message boards and reportage. He was interested in the subtexts of fandom, and the hopes and racist fears that white spectators sometimes project onto black athletes. In the film, Shields depicts Lynch as a kind of modern-day Bartleby, a living and breathing refusal of business as usual. A lot of footage comes from interviews and talk shows, and the endless string of people asking Lynch to account for himself becomes exhausting. You see how much of his job involves a kind of self-translation for an audience that would probably fear him were it not for his athletic exploits.
“Lynch” is loosely chronological, yet it’s propelled by a free-associative rhythm that the viewer slowly settles into. In the beginning of the film, the young Lynch is a quiet cipher but slowly begins to open up as he becomes a star. In 2006, after a game-winning touchdown against the University of Washington, he commandeered a medical-injury cart and began driving erratically across the field, dancing in his seat, his homage to how kids throughout the East Bay love “ghost-riding”—or putting their cars in neutral and dancing alongside them. The commentators are initially shocked, but just laugh it off as Marshawn being Marshawn. When he faced serious legal trouble in 2008, for a hit and run, the media cast him as yet another spoiled, troubled athlete with “red flags.” As long as he was merely a willing entertainer, the film suggests, controversies and “character issues” were tolerated.
But when he refused to speak to the media, or when, in a 2017 N.F.L. game played in Mexico City, he stood for the Mexican national anthem but not the American one, he became a different, and more threatening, kind of symbol. “Lynch” is at its most stirring in these polemical moments, when Shields’s careful splicing gets at the underlying truths of American life—the outright hostility that lurks just beneath the pundit’s coded innuendo, the paradox of what forms of violence are tolerated. We see footage from 1967 of the Black Power activist H. Rap Brown declaring that violence is “as American as cherry pie,” and then we see two small children obliterate each other on a football field. Lynch’s touchdown runs and interviews are intercut with horrific clips of American violence: a white police officer shooting Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist, as Scott runs away from him; lynching parties, where whites would picnic next to black bodies hanging from trees. The juxtapositions can feel heavy-handed, relieving you of doing any imaginative work to connect one clip to another. Yet the film’s relentless rhythm overwhelms and overpowers you, as random acts of terror, across time and space, reveal themselves as a pattern. It’s a gradient of American carnage.
The random word salad of one’s Twitter feed often seems like the truest index of the present moment, coursing with a polyphonic rawness that a thoughtful, lucidly composed paragraph could never capture. Relying on found footage gives “Lynch” an aura of unscripted authenticity. But there are times when Shields’s outlook that everything is a meaningful clue gives “Lynch” a clumsy feel. There are the scenes featuring pages from Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat,” which Lynch once described as his favorite book, suggesting that these rhymes offer a key to unlocking his psyche. And in the film’s last half, we see as much of Donald Trump as we see of Lynch. The soundtrack, featuring clunky electronic music, is occasionally distracting, too, enforcing a rhythm that the footage itself could have sustained. (It was hard not to compare it to the artist Arthur Jafa’s “Love is the Message, the Message Is Death,” from 2016, which lays edited footage atop a Kanye West song, achieving a more sublime, haunting commentary on black performance.)
The missteps remind you of Shields’s editorial hand, attempting to piece together the story that Lynch himself refused. (Lynch did not participate in the film, though he is aware of it.) But Shields’s drifting approach also allows him to make persuasive and even moving arguments that proceed by accumulation and association rather than by simple exposition. “Lynch” is exhausting, in part because it requires you to make sense of how seven hundred clips—some of them very disturbing—piece together. It begins to seem so startling that such a small gesture, like Lynch refusing to answer a reporter’s query about how he was feeling after practice, could become so disruptive, or, as Shields suggests, contagious. Near the end, Shields positions Lynch as a precursor of sorts to Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the national anthem, and Russell Westbrook, who is comfortable in his sarcastic, adversarial relationship to the press. Unlike surly, tight-lipped coaches, like Bill Belichick or Gregg Popovich, the players’ refusal to explain themselves is never read as a sign of wizard eccentricity. They are not allowed to be stoic.
“Shout out Oakland, California,” Lynch says at one point, smiling, and you begin to see an entire world in his eyes. An early sequence of Shields’s film stitches together the voices of some of Oakland’s most famous residents: Alice Walker, Bruce Lee, Sly Stone, Bill Russell, Maxine Hong Kingston. Together they depict Oakland as a land of righteousness and rebellion. It’s a city that birthed the Hell’s Angels and the Black Panthers and fiercely competitive athletes like Gary Payton and Frank Robinson. We get glimpses of Lynch’s childhood in Oakland, speculations from childhood mentors about adolescent struggles that produced his daring style. “I think that’s the anger in him,” Delton Edwards, his former coach at Oakland Technical High School, speculates.
We’re accustomed to the idea that people want to be heard, but there’s something powerful about the way that Lynch protects his spark, shields it from the expectant masses. Sometimes joy is a private matter. “I’ll just be looking at y’all,” he once told a crowd of reporters, “the way that y’all looking at me.” In the film, we hear Alan Grant, a former N.F.L. cornerback, talk about the challenge, as a black athlete, of feeling like you are an “exhibit,” subject to someone else’s gaze. Fans look at you like zoo animals, Grant says, trying to get as close as possible—but they forget that you can see them, too. Perhaps it’s why Lynch has rarely appeared so free as he does in a video shot in the locker room after the Seahawks’ victory in Super Bowl XLVIII. Lynch, dressed in a red sweat suit from his own Beast Mode label, walks over to an iPad and puts on Philthy Rich’s “Ready 2 Ride.” The song opens with a sinister synth growl, and Lynch, face covered, dances around the room, occasionally rapping along with his teammates. Throughout the crowded locker room, N.F.L. employees, reporters, and corporate sponsors watch him, bemused, taking photos of him, accidentally standing in his way as he struts and preens. But the self-consciousness and defiance that usually govern his interactions with that world, and their rules, have melted away. There are no expectations. He’s in his own world, and, in this moment, he’s not looking at them at all.
A previous version of this piece misstated David Shields’s place of residence and Alan Grant’s former playing position.