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Published Time: 05.06.2024 - 15:05:49 Modified Time: 05.06.2024 - 15:05:49

At one point, Sterling loses his temper with Rivers and barks: “I’m your owner.” It’s all so loaded. He’s portrayed as breezily untouchable, which is illustrated in flashbacks. He’s sitting for a deposition and describing in some detail a limo encounter with a prostitute. The anecdote is presented without context, because there’s a punchline coming. When he’s finished, the attorney across the table dryly responds: “Mr. Sterling, the question was, is this your handwriting?” That exchange isn’t an invention by Welch. Just truth being stranger than fiction. Clipped


When I mentioned to a few that I was watching screeners for FX’s “Clipped,” the racism scandal from 10 years ago involving Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, it didn’t ring a bell for most. Maybe that’s because of the increasingly frantic pace of the news cycle over the past decade. Or maybe because it’s impossible to keep track of just how many men in power are saying and doing odious things behind closed doors.

Sterling never had much of a national profile in pop culture but his downfall changed all that. His assistant and maybe-mistress V. Stiviano was in the habit of recording their conversations — with his knowledge — which included a rant berating her for being photographed with Black . That snippet would ultimately find its way to TMZ, which resulted in Sterling being banned from the NBA and forced to sell his stake in the team. Throughout it all, Stiviano had a strange push-pull response to the ensuing media interest.

That’s the recap, which suggests the story doesn’t warrant more than a movie-length treatment. But FX is in the TV and the six-episode series (streaming on Hulu) does some things I found intriguing.

Ed O’Neill has said he wasn’t interested in playing Sterling at first and I get the reluctance; he’s not only repellent, he’s boring. As a real estate mogul, Sterling was previously the subject of housing discrimination lawsuits as well as sexual harassment lawsuits. Those in with him overlooked this history and that kind of choice is neither new nor shocking, but it does put everyone in his orbit on a morally compromised path.

At one point, Sterling loses his temper with Rivers and barks: “I’m your owner.” It’s all so loaded. He’s portrayed as breezily untouchable, which is illustrated in flashbacks. He’s sitting for a deposition and describing in some detail a limo encounter with a prostitute. The anecdote is presented without context, because there’s a punchline coming. When he’s finished, the attorney across the table dryly responds: “Mr. Sterling, the question was, is this your handwriting?” That exchange isn’t an invention by Welch. Just truth being stranger than fiction.

Welch has a lot on her mind but not all of it coheres. The show is strongest when it’s less focused on Stiviano’s grasping desire for fame or recreating her awkward interview with Barbara Walters (in which she clunkily described herself as Sterling’s “right hand arm man”) and more interested in longstanding issues of racism in the NBA and the tense debates Sterling’s bigotry provoked for Rivers and the players.

“The whole season you’re talking tuning out distractions,” a player tells the coach. “But this tape is everything. Dude is literally saying that I’m a piece of property.” This sparks some meaty and nuanced arguments whether to boycott or play. Ultimately, they play. But “Clipped” does a decent enough job suggesting all kinds of “and what if they hadn’t?” questions that aren’t addressed on screen.

O’Neill goes all in. It’s the flashier, in-your-face role. But it’s Weaver and Fishburne who stand out. Weaver’s version of Shelly Sterling is a fascinating enigma and portrait of an enabler. Privately she’s exasperated by the trouble her husband is causing them both, but publicly she insists he was tricked into saying racist things. Whether she believes it or not is irrelevant, because (as portrayed here) she’s not horrified by any of it. Her focus is on maintaining as much of their lifestyle and wealth as possible. And she does it with a sugary disposition, calling Rivers and the players “honey” as they silently and stonily tolerate her presence.

Fishburne is the soiled, hangdog conscience of the series. He’s a class act who is disgusted by Sterling and just wants to do his job — but he also knows that’s a losing bet he made the moment he accepted a position with the team. Even so, the way he giddily bounces in his seat when NBA commissioner Adam Silver announces that Sterling is out is a terrific moment of satisfaction. (Darin Cooper’s Silver is unyielding and unemotional; he’s all .)

The series also pauses to let one-time general manager Elgin Baylor (Clifton Davis) hold his head high and say his piece his own deal with the devil. Sterling wasn’t interested in spending for players, which rendered Baylor largely ineffectual. But he was also given extraordinary job security despite the team’s horrendous record. The scene arrives out of nowhere, but the undercurrent of racism once again comes to the fore and that righteous tension is far more intriguing than anything happening in Sterling’s private life.

At one point early in the series, Stiviano spots a celebrity and sighs. “How come famous glow like that?” A friend splashes cold water on the fantasy: “Usually it’s not happiness.” It might be the show’s most salient point.

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