The story of the black American basketball player and converted Jew Aulcia



For the Israelis who existed in the 1970s and 1980s, Aulcie Perry was “Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reunited”, the viewer recounts in the documentary “Aulcie”.

Director Dani Menkin’s portrayal of the unlikely Israeli basketball superstar – which is produced by Nancy Spielberg and is out for general release in Los Angeles, New York and on video on demand after a few years on the festival circuit of Jewish film – might not be anywhere near the level of quality of Jordan’s own docuseries “The Last Dance”. But for fans of Israeli hoops, the sheer curiosity factor might make Aulcia worth a look.

It’s a familiar tale of fortune to the rich with a Jewish twist: Perry, a black American basketball player who grew up in poverty in Newark, is kicked out of the New York Knicks but finds new life in the game when an Israeli scout recruits him to join Maccabi Tel Aviv. From 1976 to 1985, he was the star attraction of the Maccabi, winning the team two EuroLeague championships and nine Israeli League championships, among other honors.

He also achieved celebrity status in Israel, going to “every nightclub” and entering into a multi-year relationship with model Tami Ben-Ami. Perry’s love for his adopted land even led him to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, convert to Judaism, and adopt the Hebrew name Elisha ben Avraham. (His journey would inspire other non-Jewish African-American players to do the same.)

Perry ends up losing everything to drugs: a heroin addiction threatens his basketball career before charges of drug possession and conspiracy completely disrupt her. Upon his despicable return to the United States, he served several years in prison; Urged early on by Israeli officials to attend a TV show in honor of his mentor, he moved to Israel permanently to rebuild his life as a coach with glimmers of his former fame.

Maccabi Tel Aviv Euroleague Basketball Story by Joshua Halickman on page 8 – Photo by Othello Hunter of Maccabi Tel Aviv (Credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)

These details of Perry’s life are portrayed onscreen with his full participation, and nostalgic Jewish sportsmen will be happy to see him alive and well. But at 71, he shouldn’t have to carry the team anymore – and yet that’s what ends up happening with the documentary, which can’t help him when it comes to cinematic grounded storytelling.

Menkin is a seasoned documentary filmmaker best known for his 2005 feature film “39 Pounds of Love”, which won Israel’s Ophir Award for Best Documentary and was shortlisted for an Oscar – and then received a scathing review from Roger Ebert , who said the film “feels uncomfortable being staged, and raises fundamental questions that it simply ignores. This same sense of staging and half-hearted questioning also applies to” Aulcia, “who makes little effort to explore his star’s interiority, the controversy over his conversion in Israeli society, or the complexities of the bond he shared with his teammates and friends in Israel (there is a few jokes about culture shock, but they carry no weight).

The film centers around Perry’s attempts to reconnect with a girl he never knew, a journey that seems both truncated and fabricated for our benefit. Meanwhile, Menkin also dodges any serious discussion of race or exclusion; at different times the viewer is told that there was “no racism” in 1970s Israel, and that most Israelis assumed that any tall black man they encountered was Aulcie Perry. Elsewhere, an Israeli comedian jokes that in order to replicate Perry’s size he would have to “take two Yemenis” and “weld them together.” An incident where Perry and another black teammate fist fight with Real Madrid supporters is barely mentioned except in the context of its historical significance (“It was decades before the Palace Malice!” they say, referring to a notorious NBA brawl).

Elsewhere, the film’s style becomes comically overworked – a relentless, thunderous musical score accompanies rare archive footage of Perry’s game, digitally tampered with to appear aged and erased with iMovie-level effects. B-roll, the cornerstone of any documentary, is rare here; the narration of Perry’s basketball ability in his youth is oddly accompanied by current footage of him shooting hoops as a seventy-year-old.

The strongest interpersonal relationship we see is that between Perry and Shmulik “Shamluk” Machrowski, the gregarious general manager of Maccabi Tel Aviv, who first recruited him. That Israeli TV show Perry attends towards the end of the film is for Machrowski, and the scene where they kiss after Perry’s decade-long disgrace is indeed touching. Perry continues to enjoy the status of a sports legend in Israel, and a more honest examination of his journey up to this point would have resulted in a better movie.

“Aulcie” opens in Los Angeles on November 12, and in New York and on VOD on November 16.


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