He wasn’t just one of the biggest players in basketball history; he’s still one of the biggest figures in basketball history. Wilt Chamberlain redefined the game with both his play and his drive for player empowerment, and now he’s getting the multi-part documentary treatment. Goliath, a three-part film airing on Showtime and Paramount+, takes a deep dive on the NBA legend’s life and career, and often lets his words speak for themselves.
GOLIATH: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: It’s arguable whether or not Wilt Chamberlain was the best basketball player in history, but it’s hard to deny that he was the most important. He broke racial barriers. He scored 100 points in a game, a record that hasn’t even really been approached since. He was so dominant that he necessitated changes to the NCAA rule book. He famously claimed to have slept with 20,000 women. He defined the modern superstar athlete, paving the way for every NBA player who came after him. In Goliath, we get an in-depth look at his life, career and impact through archival footage, extensive interviews, clever animations and even the AI-recreated voice of Chamberlain himself.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Goliath follows a fairly straightforward single-athlete-documentary format–with a few key tweaks–but perhaps the closest point of comparison is Bill Russell: Legend, a similar documentary on Chamberlain’s contemporary and sometimes-rival that debuted on Netflix earlier this year.
Performance Worth Watching: Like many such documentaries, the archival footage in Goliath is bolstered by interviews–both contemporaneous and new–with a variety of figures from Chamberlain’s life: teammates, coaches, family members. But the voice that’s going to draw the most attention here is Chamberlain’s own–the AI-generated voice that reads Chamberlain’s past writings and statements as though he were still alive; Chamberlain died back in 1999. It’s a bit jarring, but undoubtedly lends some spice to the proceedings.
Memorable Dialogue: At the beginning of the first episode, a chorus of voices join in to emphasize how unique and important Chamberlain was to the evolution of basketball from an afterthought to a global phenomenon. “He was a Renaissance man.” “He was the most important player of all time.” “He was the first rock and roll superstar in basketball.” “Without Wilt there wouldn’t be any Kevin Garnetts, any Kobe Bryants, any LeBron James, any Michael Jordans,” and–most memorably–“Wilt Chamberlain was an absolute motherf***er.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: There wasn’t a playbook for a life like Wilt Chamberlain’s. As a child, he towered over his classmates, his incredible height a source of embarrassment rather than pride. There was no NBA at the time, and little plausible path for a Black player to become a professional basketball player even when the league was formed. White or Black, the modern superstar athlete that we know today–one in control of their own career and image, with agency over where they play and who they play with–didn’t exist.
Chamberlain wrote that playbook.
His career stands head and shoulders over almost anyone else to play the game–he broke scoring records, changed both playbooks and rulebooks, and defined the image of a brash, confident, unapologetic superstar. During his career, Chamberlain was often compared negatively to Bill Russell, the only player of the era whose accomplishments equaled his own–in spite of the fact that the two were close friends off the court. Media and fans often held up Russell as the “good guy” to Chamberlain’s villain. As Goliath makes clear, though, Wilt Chamberlain was far more complex a figure than the dominant heel image he happily embraced.
The first episode of the three-part documentary focuses on Chamberlain’s early years, and it might just be the most compelling part of his long and fascinating story. He quickly went from an awkward child who towered over his classmates to a dominant player in high school, one who received offers from colleges all over the country–even the still-segregated portions of the country. When he arrived in Lawrence, Kansas to play for the Kansas University Jayhawks, he quickly set to doing what he always did: he changed the rulebook, willing his way into a desegregation of restaurants and business all over the town.
His impact on the court was just as immediate. Chamberlain not only quickly set scoring records, his physical abilities were so far beyond those of most players of his era (heck, beyond most still, but especially of that era) that the NCAA changed the rulebook to limit his impact, widening the lane and requiring that free-throw shooters release the ball while behind the line (eliminating Chamberlain’s preference for simply taking off from behind the line and dunking the ball.)
One of the most unusual–and potentially controversial–choices in Goliath is the use of artificial intelligence to generate a simulation of Chamberlain’s voice to read things he had said in writing over the years. It’s a bit jarring to hear, and it feels a bit ethically gray (though the choice was made with the cooperation of Chamberlain’s estate), but it’s not a central feature of an otherwise sharp and well-produced documentary film, and doesn’t detract from the overall impact of the work.
Our Call: STREAM IT. It’s easy to get hung up on the choice to recreate Chamberlain’s voice, but love that choice or hate it, Goliath is a first-rate piece of sports documentary filmmaking, one worthy of its titanic subject.
Scott Hines is an architect, blogger and proficient internet user based in Louisville, Kentucky who publishes the widely-beloved Action Cookbook Newsletter.