Uppity: The Willy T. Ribbs Story

At the Movies Blog
A documentary on a black Indy racer.

Racer Willy T. Ribbs contemplative at the track.

In this day and age, most people find Adam Carolla divisive. I thought he was brilliant on the radio show Loveline. The way he’d riff on goofy things the callers asked or what Dr. Drew would say showed he was a comedic genius. He went on to do The Man Show and Crank Yankers, both of which were funny. When I catch his podcasts, I’m always impressed (and I’ve always been someone that found Howard Stern to be the most overrated person in radio).

When it comes to films, I loved The Hammer, a movie he did about a boxer. His film Road Hard, about comedians, was okay, but I wished it was better.

Last year I caught his documentary No Safe Spaces (you can read my review of it here: https://fox5sandiego.com/entertainment/at-the-movies-blog/no-safe-spaces/ )

And because a lot of movies aren’t being screened for critics because of Covid19, I hadn’t heard about this recent documentary. I read something where Carolla complained about film festivals not accepting it, and Rotten Tomatoes critics not reviewing it (that website is a mess, for a million reasons). I watched it last night, and…it’s going to race it’s way to my Top 10 of the year. Perhaps what’s hurting the film in some circles is that it’s titled “Uppity.” I think they should have gone with this for a title: They Call Me Mr. Ribbs! (you younger folks can look up that reference).

Now, I don’t give a crap about racing. I don’t know anything about cars. I wouldn’t be able to tell a piston from a…well, I know so little about cars I can’t even think of another car part to complete that sentence. But I enjoyed Ron Howard’s film Rush, which dealt with a racing rivalry I knew nothing about. I liked the documentary Senna, about a race car driver I knew nothing about. That’s because you don’t have to know anything about a subject, to enjoy a good story. And what Carolla gives you here, is a story about the Jackie Robinson of the racing world. It’s a shame Willy T. Ribbs isn’t a household name. In fact, I only knew of him because I was once channel surfing and came across an episode of Jay Leno’s garage, and he was driving around with Mr. Ribbs, and they told a bit about his story. So between me finding out who Ribbs was, and what’s going on in this country regarding race relations, this documentary couldn’t have come at a better time. 

Of course, the name Jackie Robinson is brought up in the film. He broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. In the NBA, it was a few years later in 1950 when Early Lloyd became the first black player. In the NFL, a former UCLA Bruin, like Robinson, Kenny Washington, was the first to sign an NFL contract. Yet that was just because the Cleveland Rams moved to L.A. and the publicly owned Coliseum was pushing for racial integration. So it’s amazing to think that with these sports, and this all happening around the late ‘40s, that with auto racing — it wasn’t until the ‘80s that we were seeing a black driver, and it was only this one — Mr. Ribbs. And if you think the “noose” found in Bubba Wallace’s garage was a big deal, well…you ain’t seen nothing yet. Watch this documentary, and just look at the crap Ribbs had to contend with. I’m guessing he would have rather had nooses hanging in his garage, then his own mechanics sabotaging his engines.

Ribbs talks about his early days and the values his father and grandfather instilled. His grandfather was a successful plumber, working for clients that were all white. He sold the business to his son, and bought a farm. He told his grandson you should always be your own boss.

When Willy got into racing as a kid (it was a hobby for his dad), he decided he’d pursue it as a career. He took his money earmarked for his college education and spent it racing in Europe. One of the great things in this documentary was seeing him as a child, take a photo with his racing hero Dan Gurney. I can’t tell you what happens when those two meet up again, or that would be a big fat “Spoiler Alert” but suffice it to say, it’s one of the greatest moments you’ll see on screen all year.

Ribbs had to see the n-word written on bathroom stalls after his name. He had to walk into meetings with other race car drivers, and everyone glaring at him, and nobody talking to him. He also had entire crowds booing him, and folks spitting on the ground where he stood. I swear, I was watching this entire documentary with tears welling up in my eyes. And I loved his arrogance. He’d see the n-word written somewhere, and he’d smile and say, “I’ll give them something to hate me for” and he’d go out and win the race.

In sports, I usually hate athletes that showboat, but as the documentary points out, other race car drivers did this. It could be doing donuts after a victory, or climbing the fence to the fans. So it’s strange that when Ribbs would dance on the roof of his car, the way Ali would shuffle in the ring, fans thought that was out of line. Oh, and Ali does play a part in this story, in ways you’d expect. He advises Ribbs on the challenges he was going to face, and how he should learn to fight. Unfortunately, when Ribbs would fight, he’d be suspended. Even if that’s after other drivers purposely crashed into him when he’s winning a race, or other drivers throwing punches and not being suspended.

Oh, and Ali isn’t the only famous person that pops up when it comes to fighting. Bruce Jenner, who had some involvement with the racer that crashed into Ribbs, talks about Ribbs coming up to their car and getting into the fight. As Ribbs said, “You may have thrown that spear in the Olympics, but I’m going to take that spear and shove it up your *** sideways.” 

Caitlyn Jenner then says, “God gave me these feet for running, so I just ran out of there.”

Guess who else shows up in this? Bill Cosby. After seeing how great a driver he was, and how he wasn’t getting sponsorship because of the color of his skin, Cosby jumped in to ask how he could help. Ribbs said he’d need $500,000 for equipment. Cosby said he’d try to get sponsors and donate some of that. He gave $350,000, which got the Cosby name on the helmet and car as well. It’s crazy to think that with Cosby going to companies that had him in commercials (Coke and Kodak), they wouldn’t pony up anything. And before you go thinking he was taking Cosby for a ride, we’re told at one point just how much an Indy car costs. Parts of the engine are $100,000. A set of tires is $900, and you go through 26 sets during a season (or is it a race?). Either way, it’s a lot of cash.

Before that, it was Paul Newman who was great about helping him out (side note: I found out while researching this, that Carolla has done a documentary on him, which I’ll be seeking out).

Of course, Don King shows up, as the slimy promoter we know him to be. Listening to Ribbs talking about reading the contract he wanted to sign is hysterical.

There was nothing more timely, when we were just hearing about the race community getting rid of the Confederate flags, there’s segments about that flag in this.

I’m just glad they explained a lot of the differences in the cars, because for those of us that don’t know anything about racing, it was helpful. And it just blew my mind that he’d have some of his own mechanics messing with his car so he would lose races. In those other sports where guys broke the color barrier, even when other teams could be horrible to that player, at least their own teammates had their backs. Not in this case.

There’s a touching story of an older black race car driver that also adds an interesting perspective, and the way Ribbs feels he’s doing this for him and others (like the black guy he sees in another driver’s crew, crying as he tries to qualify for the Indy 500)…pepper this documentary with very special moments.

There are a few times Ribbs gets choked up. One of them is when he talks about Jim Trueman dying. And because you’re watching Ribbs tell his story so stoically, it really gets you.

One of the funnier moments comes in finding out a corny scene from Days of Thunder (Tom Cruise) actually was taken from a real story of Ribbs and a teammate he was rather competitive with, and what they do to a pair of rental cars.

The only complaints I have is that I would have liked to hear from more racers. The Unser family says a lot, but where are the other big names in the racing world? Also, the documentary doesn’t tell us anything about his personal life. Even if that would have been a quick one or two minutes, so we’d know if he ever got married or had kids, and how all this pressure affected them. Especially since, there would be years where he couldn’t make money racing and had to go from driving race cars, to driving the plumbing van for his dad. How insane is it, to think a guy with this much talent, has to be relegated to leaving his sport because he can’t make money at it? It would be like Dr. J, when it wasn’t basketball season, being a courier for a real doctor to pay the bills.

Folks, this is a terrific documentary. Even Ray Charles could see that [side note: don’t be offended by that statement; I stole it from Ribbs].

You can catch this on Netflix now. I’m giving it 4 ½ stars out of 5.

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