Ursula Liang on a Straight Shooter Who Took on the World in “Jeanette Lee Vs.”

When Ursula Liang went to Jeanette Lee’s home in Tampa Bay to interview the professional pool player for the doc “Jeanette Lee Vs.,” the filmmaker was reminded of the last time they had crossed paths two decades earlier.

“I actually saw a photo on her wall that I knew was from an event [I covered] because I had the exact same photo in my photo album at home,” says Liang, who had attended a banquet for the Women’s Sports Foundation, of which Lee had been a prominent board member, when she was a print journalist at the start of her career. “It’s a photo of Jeanette making big muscles in her cocktail dress alongside a WNBA player and a bodybuilder, and I had a same photo from a different angle.”

Seeing Lee from another side would come to serve Liang well when she had the opportunity to make a biopic about the woman who had come to be known as “the Black Widow” on the billiards circuit and beyond, dressing the part for her matches when she always appeared as if she was about to attend her opponent’s funeral. Lee hardly started out as the confident type that became a sensation when ESPN 2 devoted hours of airtime each week to women’s pool in their early days, but Liang traces her toughness back to having difficulty fitting in at school where she was mercilessly mocked as a lone Asian on the playground in Crown Heights, and afflicted with scoliosis that made her retreat even further until finding a safe haven at Chelsea Billiards Hall as a teen. Standing out even among the crowds that had been brought in by the recent popularity of “The Color of Money,” Lee inspired another wave of excitement around the sport once she graduated to nationally televised matches showing her dispatch rivals in style, startling both in terms of her efficiency and her wardrobe, often playing in heels and blouses with plunging necklines that were at odds with how most others approached the pool table.

While some saw the attention Lee brought as less beneficial to the sport than to herself, “Jeanette Lee Vs.” presents someone who understood how to play the game in more ways than one, not only undaunted in 9-Ball Championships but in navigating the casual sexism and racism that she was going up against as much as any other competitor. However, Lee faces her greatest challenge to date when Liang finds her, diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer and while she endures physical compromises, her ferocity remains intact as she reflects on an improbable career in which she reached the highest levels of the sport by calling her own shots. After its recent premiere at DOC NYC, the engaging and poignant doc is making its premiere on ESPN as part of the 30 for 30 series on December 13th and Liang spoke about the honor of profiling a rare Asian-American athlete of such renown, reconciling the way she was seen during the ‘90s with how that era is now looked upon today in terms of representation, and how following Lee on her daily routine revealed so much about her.

One of the fascinating realizations of this was how intertwined Jeanette Lee was in the rise of ESPN 2 because of how prolific women’s pool was on their schedule at the time. I’m sure a different generation of people work there now, but was it interesting engaging them on this when in some ways it’s their story as well as hers?

The film was actually produced out of a production company called Words and Pictures, a great group of folks that have a great history with the 30 for 30 series, and we actually didn’t have marching orders from [ESPN] on anything that had to do with the ESPN content within the story. I personally knew that I wanted certain things in there — a whole discussion about how women’s pool really became star content on ESPN 2, and [there’s] one of the Sportscenter commercials appears in the film and of course, Michael Kim, who was the only Asian-American anchor around at that time, who was not only an idol, but a friend of mine. I was really thrilled to be able to get him in the film because he’s not only Korean-American, but he was there at the time things were happening and he and Jeanette added up to the two Korean-Americans that were on TV at that point.

At DOC NYC, you and Michelle actually spoke about how there might’ve been an interesting dichotomy between how she was considered at the time versus seeing it through the lens of today. How involved was Jeanette in actually looking at those old matches and hearing how she might’ve been discussed?

For Jeanette, we asked her to look back at her entire life, so it was quite a task to edit that down, but there’s one moment in the film where she says [something to the effect of], “I was just working with the time that I had.” and I think a lot of us are working with the times we’re given. My idea of who I am as a woman and how I operate in this world is really defined by my circumstances and what I feel I can control and what’s not controllable to me at any given moment, and I think my own journey in terms of women’s empowerment has really changed over time. That really comes with finding more power in myself and rising in the ranks [in my career] and all these things, and anyone who comes from any marginalized group is constantly looking at the context of where they are and how they can express themselves within that context, so that moment really resonated when Jeanette said that in the film.

And to look at this old footage [of the tournaments] and see the in-between the takes moments, there was only so much verite that we could do in present time. We knew that if we were going to tell the story of her, we were going to need some of this “verite” to come out of the archival material, so Michelle Chang, who edited two of my other films, and I dug through all that material and when you’re getting the raw tape from ESPN, they may have aired that moment where she’s talking and shooting a shot, but there’s all this producer talk in between and we found some of that stuff much more interesting.

The film confronts the idea that often movements need focal points, whether Jeanette signed up for it or not — and it seems a lot of her competitors on the women’s pool circuit are generous in giving their time to this, yet I wonder whether it was difficult to challenge to get people on board when it’s a film that inevitably turns the spotlight on her as a representative of something larger?

Ultimately, we didn’t get everybody in the film that we wanted to, but most of the pool players we did get on screen, we actually went to a specific tournament so we made it very easy on them to say yes and we did all the interviews close to where they were doing other things. But I did make a really specific point of asking each of these women in the interview what their reaction was to us doing a 30 for 30 on Jeanette, knowing that there has not been another 30 for 30 done on another female pool player and I think to a person, they each took a pause. Not that many female pool players are getting a documentary period, so I think they all have their opinions about where she falls in greatness in terms of physical skill and that everyone also puts an asterisk next to that, knowing that her career was derailed in some ways by her physical pain.

But they all [also] acknowledge that Jeanette is the most well-known player out there period and she came in at the right moment and she was not only incredibly visible, but incredibly charismatic and whatever she got for herself, she lifted all boats. They were all making more money because of what she was doing, so I think they understood how much she has given to the sport and that reviving her story now will again do something to inject some energy into the sport because it doesn’t have ESPN 2 in the way it did back then, but everybody who’s involved would still like it to be like a million-dollar prize sport where everybody’s watching the championships. There’s some great competition and people loved it in the ‘90s, so let’s find a revival for these folks.

Was there anything that happened during the course of shooting that changed your ideas of what this could be?

A lot of things happened that we didn’t expect. We were filming in a moment of COVID, so that was really difficult and sometimes I was surprised at things people got emotional about. You knew that people were going to get emotional about the cancer diagnosis, but I was a little bit surprised at how much Jeanette was still simmering on some of the pain of being like a loner on the tour back then, so that caught me a little off-guard. One of the things we were playing with in the film was this sense of being unresolved, [which is] really important when you’re thinking about somebody who is living with a terminal illness. When you feel like you’re close to the end of your life — and as she says in the film, she’s sort of standing on the edge — I think most people want to feel like there’s a sense of resolution and a sense of peace and [when] she’s so young, a lot of these things are still so unresolved, so that was very powerful and something that we wanted to put into the film.

At one point, Jeanette seems to address you behind the camera when she says, “You’re right, I should stop apologizing for myself.” When it breaks the wall like that, was it much of a decision to leave in?

It was a behind the scenes moment that we wanted on camera because it shows how conscious she is of her appearance and how she’s presenting herself to the world, so it’s this constant second view of herself as she’s doing an interview that she’s had throughout her career, very conscious of how her story was told in the media and she knew what a good story was. She was really instrumental in creating her own image that’s both masterful and careful and we wanted that to be on display. But it also spoke to feminism [and how] women are constantly asked to apologize for things or to couch things, and when she’s having this awareness of feminism in this moment of also being aware of how she’s appearing on camera, it was a couple layers there that I found really interesting.

It’s also really interesting to see her daily routine, which becomes a reflection of her Asian-American heritage as she cooks with her family and goes to the nail salon. Did that framework come naturally?

No, because her routine is unlike anybody else’s. [laughs] Pool players, at least Jeanette, wake up and stay up really late and she lives with pain, — she has to have a long moment for her before she can even face the day, so every day is different for her. But the cooking was something we fought for in the edit because to some people, it’s boring, but she never marketed herself as an Asian-American athlete and that little cooking scene to me is where we tell an audience who she is in the world of Asian-America. In that scene, she’s cutting a pomelo, a distinctly Asian-American fruit, and she’s having this side conversation in Korean, so while she’s not saying I’m Korean-American and this is how Korean-American I am, I think that folks that know and understand those things immediately know how Korean she is. She’s a Korean who speaks Korean and eats Asian-American foods, so that was really important to me.

Then I’m a huge fan of nails, so actually being at the nail salon, I don’t think we had enough time to get most of that into the film — in fact, there’s a really good scene that’s not in the film where she says she’s hungry and the owner comes over with a tray of like 40 chocolate balls and she’s like, “Oh no, I can’t take any,” and the owner’s like, “You must take them all” and pours the 40 chocolate balls into her purse. It’s a very Asian-American conversation to me and Jeanette leaves with 40 chocolate balls in her purse, and [also] being able to showcase a Vietnamese nail salon – the people there were so thrilled to be on camera and they were very excited to be there with Jeanette – so that was really fun.

From the DOC NYC Q & A, it appeared Jeanette clearly loved the film. What was that night like for you?

We were so relieved. Cora Atkinson, the producer [on this who also] produced “Summer of Soul,” and I were in a panic before showing it to her because you like your film and you want to be a journalist, but you also realize this film is about someone else’s life. This means more to them than it means to you, so we were really hoping that while we were hoping to make a fair film with flaws and context and complications, we wanted her to feel okay about it, so when she watched it before DOC NYC and was happy about it, it was a huge relief. I think it also helped her a little bit in this space where she’s thinking about her terminal illness, to look back upon her life and reframe things and find a little bit more peace and a little bit more closure. And I’m thrilled this film is going to let her have another moment in the spotlight because she deserves it and I think she’s going to love that.

“Jeanette Lee Vs.” will premiere on December 13th on ESPN and ESPN+.

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