Naomi Osaka’s Cinematic Perspective Is Also a Human One

Photo: Netflix

It’s been quite a summer for Naomi Osaka.

So far she has: kick-started a conversation about athletes’ relationships with the media after dropping out of the French Open because she chose not to do post-match interviews; penned an essay for Time magazine; become the first female Black athlete featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue; won the ESPY for best female athlete; insisted that “Megan” Kelly “do better”; and had the honor of lighting the cauldron to open the Tokyo Olympic Games. She had also been competing in those Games until earlier today, when she lost in her third round of singles play to the Czech Republic’s Markéta Vondroušová.

While all of this activity and conversation has been swirling around the tennis star, an intimate docuseries that followed her journey over the past two years, Naomi Osaka, also landed on Netflix. Garrett Bradley, nominated for an Academy Award this year for her documentary Time, about a Black woman’s effort to get her husband released from a disproportionately long prison sentence, directed the series and spent a great deal of time in Osaka’s orbit, talking with and observing her in order to present an authentic sense of who Osaka is and is becoming.

Bradley recently chatted with Vulture about her approach to making the docuseries, what it was like to work with Osaka, and her views on Osaka’s relationship with the press.

When Netflix approached you about working on this project, what was their pitch to you? 
I really appreciated the way in which Netflix came to me, because they didn’t actually have a pitch. It was really about, There’s this opportunity, would it be interesting to you, why would it be interesting, and what can happen? It was actually a series of conversations and, for me, really thinking through it from a human perspective and a cinematic one, what I could really offer to her story in this moment. So much of my work has come to fruition from having preexisting relationships with my community and with people. I was very much out of my comfort zone working with somebody I’d never met before.

I also wanted to be sensitive to what it would mean to make a documentary about somebody that was so young. I went into it actually with a few different kinds of questions, but it wasn’t a true agenda, because I couldn’t be looking for X, Y, and Z, because I needed to get to understand her and to know her before I could even formulate that. It actually wasn’t super-clear to me what the foundation of this was going to be until I spent more time with her and found that she was really in a place of contemplation and of asking herself huge life questions that ultimately radiated and echoed out into the world.

How much time did you get to spend with Naomi before you officially embarked on the project?
Not much time at all. It was like a day — it was actually at the U.S. Open in 2019 and she was getting ready for that. I was getting used to what it means for everybody understanding where her headspace needed to be in order to prepare. It’s not just physical. Tennis is so much of a mental sport, as she says herself. As a filmmaker, I needed to find other ways to be present with her without leaning on dialogue or conversation. It was actually really exciting.

You took a very fly-on-the-wall, vérité kind of approach, which seems like that would be your approach regardless, right? That’s sort of your sensibility.
I guess it is, yeah. I mean, typically I spend enough time with a person so that I understand how they move through their own spaces and I can then make a decision about, my camera’s going to be here and I can be here confidently because I know how they inhabit this space. That allows us to feel like we’re really with a person as opposed to me chasing after them.

But then how I’m moving through those spaces changes from one project to the next. I know it sounds really hippie-dippie, but I really try to connect with the spirit of somebody so that the visuals are in celebration of those things.

Did you have to establish any ground rules with Naomi? For instance, were there any times where she said, “You know what, let’s not film right now”?
Not really. I think that the biggest thing was understanding right before a match where her head was going to be, and really not wanting to be a distraction to her in any kind of way. That wasn’t actually something that was ever explicitly said to me; it was just intuition and putting myself in her shoes of what would be the healthiest, most respectful choice. I don’t believe, as a filmmaker, that the film comes first. I think the person always comes first. Not everyone feels that way. So there were moments where I was like, We may not get that, but it doesn’t matter because there’s a bigger goal.

I want to ask you about a choice that was made in the first episode, where you retrace Naomi’s first U.S. Open win over Serena Williams. The summary of that doesn’t get into all the gritty details about Williams’s disagreements with the umpire and the code violations against Serena. Why did you decide not to include that? 
It was important for me, again, that the series felt like we were with Naomi and that we were going through her journey from her perspective. Part of what was required in being able to achieve that was to let go of a lot of the externalized moments and externalized understandings of what she has experienced. Anyone can watch the match and see what happened. Anyone can read the drama that ensued afterwards in the press and go on Wikipedia. What is it that they can’t look up, right? What is it that won’t necessarily be there in preexisting material? That was a defining moment for her that then really informed the next two years that we see in the series. So it wasn’t to dismiss the reality of that match. It was to offer something that we hadn’t seen yet.

You spent some time filming her in the press-conference environment, specifically that one Australian Open press conference after she lost to Coco Gauff. Obviously, there’s been a lot of dialogue around Naomi’s approach to the media since then. What has impressed me about her is that it’s not that she doesn’t want to give answers. I think her answers are actually very thoughtful and that she’s really absorbing what’s being asked of her. I’m wondering what your impression is of her in those situations.
Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I think her actions and her decisions around how she wants to use her voice and when she wants to use her voice are a reflection of demanding a more empathetic and transparent world. When you look at somebody like Marshawn Lynch, we understand that forcing somebody to speak is another way of taking their voice away. I think that Naomi is certainly bringing that to her own sphere. I think it’s also a reflection of her generation and her generation’s demand for a new way of understanding what professionalism is and what transparency is. I think that all we have in life is our voice. When we want to use it is so crucial to the core of who we are.

Earlier this year, when Naomi announced she was not going to do press at the French Open, at that point, were you still editing the documentary or was it completely finished?
No, we were done.

Garrett Bradley Photo: blvxmth

That’s what I figured. I’m just wondering what your reaction to that decision was, if that was surprising or if you were like, No, this is very much in line with what I’ve observed about her.
I think when we were filming, she was very much figuring out the lay of the land. She says herself, there are some things that nobody can prepare you for. I think she was really in a place of observing and figuring out her footing in that and what would make her feel comfortable and how she personally wants to move through the space that she’s found herself in. Once we take a moment to understand how things make us feel, we then make decisions based on those realizations. I think the series is really about her lead-up to those realizations, which then came to fruition after filming.

Even though you didn’t know any of that was going to happen after you finished the docuseries, it feels like the docuseries really does offer insight into how she presents herself.
I think I’m always interested in the environment as a dual character. Her environment was so crucial to understanding what was prompting her own inquiry about life. I couldn’t have anticipated the perspective from which these things became relevant, but obviously her decisions are coming out of the environment that she’s in and the series really puts that on display.

Recently, Megyn Kelly was giving Naomi a hard time on social media, suggesting that she’s trying to manage her relationships with the press and doesn’t really have a problem with doing press, which is not a very nuanced take on what I think Naomi has been trying to say. Are you surprised that people are having that kind of reaction?
I think any time you try to disrupt the system or disrupt the status quo, you’re going to have fear. You’re going to have people who, I don’t think in any kind of malicious way, but there are always going to be people who haven’t had the opportunity to imagine something outside of the current circumstances that have been given to us. I think that Naomi is offering us, as have other athletes in the past, like Marshawn, an opportunity to question a new way of living, a new way of existing, and that’s happening almost on every level of society right now — politically, environmentally, on every level.

What you said earlier about generational differences is really apropos here because in situations like this, and others, it feels like older generations have this attitude of, “Well, I had to put up with this, so you do also,” as opposed to being more open to, “Maybe we should reimagine this. Maybe there’s a better way of doing this.” 
That’s exactly right. It’s about imagination, which is what creates change.

Did Naomi sit down and watch the whole, completed series?
Yeah. It was actually really difficult. I mean, there isn’t a single film I’ve made with somebody where they weren’t a little intimidated by having to see themselves. But again, it goes back to the intention of making something that a person, at a bare-bones minimum, couldn’t argue with, and then the hope is that they love it and that they feel seen. I’m really grateful for her trust and being able to get us there.

What did she say after she watched it?
She said, “It was intense to see myself on-camera.” It’s scary because when you bring yourself to something, you’re always worried about how it will be received and if people accept you for who you are. I think it’s been really incredible for her and really affirming, actually, that there seems to be an outpouring of support, not just for her as a person, but even from other people talking through what strength looks like for them and what are the expectations of strength for them, the everyday person.

And how do we think about the way in which we project these certain expectations, not only on celebrities and athletes, but also on women and on Black women and people of color in general. I think her sharing her experience, coupled with her own voice outside of the ecosystem of the series, it’s really helped open up the space for a lot of people, and that’s always my hope.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to turn something into a franchise, but this series really is a time capsule of what’s gone on in her life during this two-year period. Have you thought about doing something similar with Naomi again, maybe later down the road to capture another chapter?
[Laughs] You’ll have to ask Netflix about that. We’ll see. I’m just so excited to see where she’s going to go in her life, but I know that she’s going to continue to lead with her heart and create change in the world as a result of that. I’ve just been so honored to be able to spend time with her at this moment.

Naomi Osaka’s Cinematic Perspective Is Also a Human One