Naomi Osaka (Netflix.) “ Honesty“ VS PR.

It’s rare that this writers passions for tennis and media reviewing cross over. Here is a rare example. Off the back of her Netflix documentary, it’s a good chance to have the Naomi Osaka conversation. Osaka is unquestionably a great player and 90% of the time a fantastic ambassador for the sport. Then the 2021 French Open happened. Osaka’s effective boycott of media can gain some sympathy when looked at in a certain way. There’s certainly a debate to be had about whether players should be interviewed immediately after defeat. Ultimately the media plays a hugely important role in raising both personal profiles and the standing of the sport as a whole. It’s something the tennis players at Osaka’s level sign up for regardless of the individual path they took to get there. Osaka’s leveraging of her status as one of the worlds highest profile female athletes to effectively take the financial hit that will be nothing more than a drop in the bucket to her for her problem to go away sends entirely the wrong message. Who knows what the fallout will be at the tournaments where Osaka has titles and active ranking points to defend. For the time being Osaka and her promotional team seem to be giving off a “ we are only going to do media that flatters our star “ attitude. Still willing to launch her own Barbie line and appear on the cover of Vogue but using her mental health as a shield to avoid difficult questions. This takes us to the Netflix documentary.
No beating around the bush here. This three-part Netflix series following Osaka throughout 2019 and 2020 is a massive missed opportunity. It’s directed by Garrett Bradley who won a lot of acclaim for her Amazon distributed documentary Time. This reviewer watched this previous film but did not cover it. There’s no question that it was beautifully made but came across as a distinctly one-sided take on a many-sided story. Her work with Osaka here is very much what would be expected if you took a festival and #filmTwitter pleasing indie director and told them to make Osaka’s personal and professional highlights real. It comes across as decidedly tasteful and well-meaning. Unfortunately, it’s ultimately far too controlled in its depiction of its subject to truly examine what makes her such an interesting and engaging character both on and off-court. There are moments of more raw emotion. However, they very very much feel like they only go up to the level Osaka’s promotional team is comfortable with being seen by the general public.
The 2021 French Open was an external factor outside the filmmaker’s control. That said the series use of selective perception in making the documentary a better PR piece is decidedly noticeable. This is a project that purports to be an honest look at the pressures of international sports stardom. Omitting the two Grand Slam events where the subject wasn’t already defending champion and has a much lesser record is wrong on so many levels. Neither the French Open nor Wimbledon are mentioned once in the final edit. The third episode focuses distinctly on Osaka’s response to Black Lives Matter. Getting a quick behind the scenes look at her seven US Open face masks was an effective touch. That said the episode offers very little fresh insight that couldn’t be gleaned from watching Osaka centric interviews and press coverage from that tournament. Also omitted, Serena Williams role in the 2018 U.S. Open final ( aka the majority of the legacy tied up in that match regardless of Osaka’s victory.) These choices would be more forgivable if the series was a more engaging hagiography of its star. However, the very indie stylised presentation suggests those involved wanted to go for more than that. As a result, the final product hits a decidedly odd note in pretty much all regards.
When taken purely as a documentary Naomi Osaka was a massive disappointment. Here was an opportunity to dig into the psychology and activism of one of the games of tennis’s most fascinating young figures. Instead, we get a piece of work that fuels too honest in its attempt at high mindedness to be entirely dismissed as an attempted puff piece. Yet nothing is offered in the actual content that enables this mini-series to elevate beyond a simple PR exercise. This can be seen both within the series itself but is very much backed up by Osaka’s current boycott of any media that is perceived as asking a difficult question. 2021 has already given us the surprisingly superb Billie Eilish documentary The Worlds a Little Blurry. It’s hard not to feel that the Eilish film already explored the themes Naomi Osaka is interested in with her piece in a more engaging, honest and less deliberately controlled manner.

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