Willy T Ribbs, Walker Motorsport, Indianapolis 500, 1991

“Uppity: The Willy T Ribbs” story reviewed

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The career of Willy T Ribbs is a story that deserves to be told, and prominently so – becoming the first African-American to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

Years before Lewis Hamilton burst onto the scene, Ribbs was a trailblazing black face in an overwhelmingly white sport. All top-level racing drivers face serious challenges, but Ribbs also had to counter the prevailing, often deeply racist, attitudes of the time.

Co-directed by comedian and motorsport fanatic Adam Carrolla (who also directed ‘Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman’), the story is compelling and the film is never dull. Happily, unlike many of racing documentaries of this ilk, it strikes a generally upbeat and combative tone, rather than a wistful one.

Some continuity errors, particularly early in the movie, will have the die-hards yelling at the screen. Why are there constant aerial shots of the Circuit de Catalunya a track where, to the best of my knowledge, Ribbs never raced? Could the producers not access some drone shots of Watkins Glen or Lime Rock?

Equally the Formula Ford footage (we are getting niche here) is frustrating as there are multiple anachronistic and out of place clips. Ribbs raced Formula Ford in the UK in the late 70’s, but there is lots of out of period USA footage. Worst of all, at one point shots of Formula Vee feature instead which, in the opinion of this reviewer, merits a custodial offence.

Another off-note, is the occasionally gratuitous use of fatal crash footage in the obligatory ‘racing is dangerous’ section. There were plenty of non-fatal crashes at Indy during this period that could make this point equally well.

Willy T Ribbs
Ribbs’ spell in Formula Ford is also featured
In contrast, the narrative handles a potentially tricky sequence involving the now disgraced comedian Bill Cosby more sensitively. Ribbs’s rise to the grid was assisted by Cosby, and despite the crimes the latter went on to commit this part of the story hasn’t been overlooked in a way the filmmakers might have been tempted to.

The movie is propelled along by contemporary interview footage with Ribbs which, bizarrely, was shot in front of Carrolla’s collection of Paul Newman’s cars. Willy T is brilliant – reflective, thoughtful and pugnacious. Likewise for a racing movie, there is a lot of racing – helpfully Ribbs’ career was largely in televised series so there is a wealth of footage to draw from.

As with other ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ movies (Crashed and Byrned comes to mind) I would have liked to hear from more dissenting voices. Notwithstanding the undeniable racial prejudice, Ribbs was involved in a number of controversies throughout his career and watching Uppity I did wonder about how much these slowed his career trajectory.

But it’s a great watch, and well worth seeking out.

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Rating four out of five

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Uppity: The Willy T Ribbs story

Publisher: Chassy Media
Published: 2020

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Ben Evans
Motorsport commentator Ben is RaceFans' resident bookworm. Look out for his verdict on the latest motor racing publications on Sundays....

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  • 13 comments on ““Uppity: The Willy T Ribbs” story reviewed”

    1. I watched this few weeks ago when it came out on Netflix, way before drive to survive season2 . My first thought was “this should be a must watch for all F1 drivers of the new- Poor me- generation”
      I don’t think European can really relate as to how racist the deep south USA was at the time , (and still is), but this guy’s life was the real “Survive to drive”! Punch after punch, dirty tricks after dirty trick, he kept getting up and going for more.
      The story is told ,unlike Survive to drive, without obvious “hollywoody” moments because it doesn’t need them. The few discrepancies that Keith mention do not affect the facts or the story telling in my view. It’s must watch in my books, and should be in the tool box of any driver coach dealing with today’s rich kids with their sens of entitlement !
      Watch it!

      1. Not just in the deep south, ameriKKKa is racist throughout. I remember Mr Ribbs being spat on in Indianapolis motor speedway, not exactly in the south.

        1. If you look at what happened a few years ago on his debut (& is still happening currently) with Darrell Wallace (first black NASCAR) driver you’ll see that the attitude of a large number of white Americans hold the same views as the racist criminals they descended from. Not much has changed in the last few hundred years in that regard. They’ve become better hypocrites but that’s about it.

          1. with Darrell Wallace (first black NASCAR)

            Second. I mean, there may have been more, but he is certainly absolutely not the first. Wendell Scott was the most well-known, I think, for having won a race but been cheated out of the podium because of racism.

            1. Thanks for the correction.

        2. indiana might as well be in the south. and not just for their racial insensitivity – formula 1 in america is continuously being hampered by the racing community from there. but, i think david hobbs said it best. there really wasn’t a need for more dissenting voices.

    2. I saw Willy T last year at the Indycars race at the Circuit Of the Americas. He was wandering the paddock area like any other fan, until a more knowledgeable friend pointed him out. I didn’t know he lives in Austin.

    3. Like Senna (the documentary), Uppity portrays its subject as a victim of outside forces rather than a complicated figure with personal agency. Ribbs was a good driver who faced some racial discrimination, but the documentary would have you believe that he’d have been WDC if not for those racist Italian sponsors who wouldn’t let him drive. In reality, Ribbs was never good enough to drive in F1.

      1. In 1977, Ribbs won the British Racing and Sports Car Club-organized Formula Ford 1600 Championship in his first year of competition, winning six races in eleven starts.

        You don’t know what he was capable of, nobody does because he,wasn’t given the opportunity. I watched several of his trans am races, he was special.

    4. I believe that just about any historical racing coverage is near great. That Willy is and was the only driver of color in the U.S. to have an impact on pro racing is without question. I went up against David Hobbs, no slouch, and others. It is interesting that the author focused on Cosby as a note, and his relationship to Willy’s career, but the funding from him was quite small. More detrimental, and not mentioned by the author or the movie is the likely impact that The Roush and Protofab organization had with the controversial engine power issue. This was mentioned but glossed due probably to liability. But the producers could have possibly used quotes from Mr. Silex from when the team partners parted company. Willy was involved in controversy, many times, and way more times then he should have, but the controversy part was not his making, it was the result of what came before.

    5. I was impressed that the movie contains interview with Bernie related to Willy’s Brabham tests.

      Also, since Ribbs gives Paul Newman a lot of credit in helping his racing career, I don’t find it odd in the slightest that a lot of the interview would have a Newman car in the background.

    6. A very interesting trailer. Willy is a true black man (African American). Hamilton’s mother is white. He hasn’t wet through the hardship that Willy went through beacuse of the era, and Hamilton looks like he basically has a good tan.

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