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Erik Parker embedded a deliberate double meaning in the title of his new Netflix miniseries, Race: Bubba Wallace. On the one hand, the six-episode series tracks the racing career of breakout NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace. But as one of the few prominent Black athletes in that sport, Wallace's story is also inextricably tied up in the larger subject of race, both in the NASCAR world and America as a whole. "We deal with both race and the race," Parker tells Yahoo Entertainment. "We juggle Bubba's struggles with race and the struggles that NASCAR has had with race with his triumphs and tragedies while actually racing."
Both of those sides of Wallace's story crashed together during his tumultuous 2020 season, which took place against the backdrop of the George Floyd protests that shone a new spotlight on racial injustice. Inspired by the broader national conversation, Wallace led a successful campaign to convince NASCAR to ban the Confederate flag from its events. Not long after the ban went into effect, though, Wallace's team discovered a noose hanging in his garage stall at the Talladega Superspeedway in Lincoln, Ala. The public outcry that followed spurred the FBI to investigate the incident as a hate crime. (Federal authorities ultimately determined that it wasn't an intentional act.)
The noose story and its aftermath — which included a viral tweet by former President Donald Trump demanding that Wallace apologize — understandably plays a major role in Race. In a wide-ranging interview, Parker discusses how he approached that subject with Wallace; watching the driver struggle with his mental health on and off-camera; and why he hopes the series dispels the myth that athletes are superheroes.
I understand that Bubba was a little reluctant to revisit some of the things that happened to him during the 2020 season, and you had to get him to open up. Was that your experience?
Yeah, it was in some ways. Bubba's pretty much an open book: He tells you how he feels, and doesn't hold back much. However, I noticed that he was also extremely focused on how well he was going to do moving forward into this season. He's talked about the issues surrounding the noose and all the other things that happened to him in the 2020 season so much. He was in the headspace of: "I have to prove myself on the track," and the stuff that happened in 2020 was a ways behind him. So getting him to revisit it took time and patience. It wasn't that he wasn't open about it, it's just that a lot of the time he was much more focused on his next race.
How did you want to approach the story of the noose in the series? As a storyteller, you must not have wanted that one incident to define Bubba's narrative.
When it comes to a story about someone like Bubba Wallace, most people heard of him surrounding the noose. So it's the obvious entry point into his story in order to explore all the other facets of his life that he was dealing with, including the sport and his mental health. So talking about the noose being found in the garage is important. However, I also know that everybody who has ever talked to him has brought that up, so he was talked out of it in a lot of ways. We had to find ways to get into that story that people hadn't necessarily heard and try to explain it in a way so that people could get a different understanding of it.
To that point, what's a detail he shared with you that changed your perception of that whole story?
Hearing about it from him, I didn't realize that Bubba didn't find the noose himself. Someone else found it and reported it — he didn't have anything to do with the whole thing that was going on around him when it came to the noose. I didn't realize that the noose wasn't necessarily aimed at Bubba, but he was placed in that particular garage where a single noose has hanging.
It was dismissed as not being a hate crime after the FBI investigated, however — as W. Kamau Bell tells us in the film — if this was a sport with Black people, there would be no noose in sight. There's a certain sensitivity to hanging a noose that you wouldn't find in an NBA locker room for instance or the NFL. So even if there was no one who specifically said, "I"m going to hang this up to intimidate Bubba," the idea did not seem outrageous given the time, the sport and the culture surrounding the sport. And there actually was a noose hanging in the garage.
When the FBI report came out, it seemed to give certain individuals license to dismiss the whole incident.
I think that's why this series is really important for people to really unpack all these elements. Because the FBI report gave people who already were looking for an opportunity an off-ramp to get off the Bubba Wallace bandwagon. It gave them a chance to say "Bubba's just a troublemaker," and dismiss him and the struggle with race both in the sport and in America. They didn't deeply examine that this was a concerning enough incident for the FBI to have to investigate.
We talk to one of the lead FBI investigators in the film, and he made it clear that it was a serious issue. He'd dealt with a lot of hate crimes in that area [of Alabama], so it wasn't unusual or out of place for them to investigate this as a hate crime. It was also really important that NASCAR took a stand against it — I think they did the right thing. I also think there was a PR campaign where people with loud voices were able to call him Jussie Smollett and [suggested] that he came up with this hoax to try to fool people, which is completely not true.
Trump's comments on Twitter probably didn't help.
Just think: You're Bubba Wallace, a twentysomething racer in NASCAR. Someone finds a noose in your garage and they tell you, "We need to investigate." They investigate and find there's no hate crime, but it's in the heat of all this upheaval in America and NASCAR has just banned the Confederate flag at all of its events. So tensions were really high at the time, and then this happens. The President weighs in with the weight of the United States government.
It's hard to even fathom the kind of pressure that puts on a person — it's the President, the person who has the nuclear football, you know what I mean? He demands that Bubba apologize, and obviously didn't do any research or understand any of the nuance of the situation. For him to say what he said emboldened people even further. I think this series gives people a better understanding of what the reality was, who Bubba is and where the sport of NASCAR is going. There's a right side of history and a wrong side of history to be on. If you explore the facts and understand the reality, it's hard to find yourself on the wrong side of history.
For a long time, defenders of the Confederate flag have invoked the "heritage" argument. Do you hope this series helps people understand what that symbol means and why Bubba wanted it banned?
If you go back to the Civil Rights era and Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., there was always internal pressure working against the system. NASCAR deserves some credit for doing what most people consider to be the right thing, and the kind of obvious thing. And you can examine their motives in a lot of different ways: The sport desperately needed to expand, and they desperately needed to include more people. A lot of people can't even name who wins a cup series, unlike who wins the Super Bowl or the NBA championship.
And on top of that, because the sport seemed to be hostile to people of color, sponsors were under, under scrutiny for getting involved too much with that Confederate flag flying. So it was only a matter of time for it to happen, but there is a legacy of that flag engrained in the sport. Many years ago, NASCAR stopped flying it in their arenas, but they didn't tell people they couldn't bring it in. So this was a major move for NASCAR to take a stand at this time in America, and it's important to focus on the fact that it actually happened. It could be a signal for putting those old ways and that old heritage argument back into the shadows in the margins of American society, where most of us believe it belongs.
Bubba is very open in talking about his mental health in the series. We're at a time where Black athletes — including Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka — seem to be leading that conversation in the sports world. Do you think they've had a disproportionate amount of pressure placed on them as a result?
Clearly they've gotten some negative attention. In the series, we explore how Bubba's mental health was affected by everything he went through. He was very open and honest about it, and he's still exploring it in a lot of ways. I would say that it's the same thing that happens with athletes who express their political views. A lot of people expect to only see them as performers, as robots who are only supposed to entertain. They think that the field of play is supposed to be outside of reality. Some of those people might already have some racial resentments, too.
But I also think there's just been a lack of understanding about it all these years. We build up athletes as superheroes, and we celebrate them when they win no matter what they go through to get there. There's a reckoning with that now, because we're starting to realize that they're also people, and they suffer mental health issues just like the rest of the population. We capture Bubba dealing with it in real time in the middle of a season. Here's Michael Jordan — the superhero athlete who now owns his car — telling him, "We need to win." And that's as Bubba is coming off speaking out and being this polarizing figure. You can imagine how tough that was for him.
A lot of times he'll try to brush it off the way a lot of athletes do. You know, like: "Oh, there's no pressure. I'm just going to do what I do." But at some point we peel away the layers and you actually see what's going on behind the machine. This is a six-part series, and I hope people watch the whole thing, because there's so many things to see in each one. And once you think you've got the series figured out, there's more to explore.
Race: Bubba Wallace is currently streaming on Netflix.