PARK CITY, Utah — Even if you don't know who Chris Webber is, you take one look at him and you've already written his story in your mind.
Webber stands 6 feet 10 inches tall, and a quick glance marks him as a beast on the basketball court; most people quickly chalk him up to being whatever negative stereotype of black male athletes is currently hanging in popular consciousness. But that's why he's here at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, reintroducing himself as an executive producer of movies.
The former standout at the University of Michigan — he was part of the famed Fab Five basketball stars — and NBA superstar has shifted his competitive nature to the film industry. He wants to help smash stereotypes, and not just for athletes.
"I feel that the narrative that has been told on me all my life is not true," Webber told BuzzFeed News, sitting in a swanky modern lounge just off of Main Street. "And media is so powerful."
That notion of kicking off narratives permeated Webber's first feature film, Unexpected, which premiered this week at the annual film festival. Directed by Kris Swanberg (wife of indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg), the movie stars Cobie Smulders as Sam, a Chicago public school teacher who discovers she is unexpectedly pregnant and slowly comes to terms with what that means for her and her boyfriend-turned-husband (played by Anders Holm). Sam is white, and teaches science at a predominately black public high school, and she soon learns that one of her best students, Jasmine (Gail Bean), also is expecting a baby. The two become unlikely friends, but Unexpected's story doesn't take viewers where films like this typically go — there's no great white hope hero here, and it's thoughtful in all the right ways.
Webber, the 41-year-old son of a Detroit public school teacher, related to Sam and Jasmine's story (his wife Erika is also a teacher), and he knew he wanted to be part of it.
"I loved that this wasn't the stereotypical basketball, drug dealing, shoot 'em up, something that maybe you would expect a basketball player to come up with," he said.
Unexpected is the polar opposite of that. It's very female-driven, delving into issues like juggling surprise motherhood while not losing sight of one's career aspirations, and the hard decisions that come from being a parent, regardless of age, and how socioeconomic status can affect the choices afforded to a working mother.
Eventually, Webber does want to tell stories about athletes, and he's currently finishing a documentary about his own life. His producing partner is Peter Gilbert, whom he met some 20 years ago working on the seminal doc Hoop Dreams. Since then, the friendship that the two cultivated has blossomed into a business partnership.
Webber didn't like how his own story played out in ESPN's 2011 documentary on the Fab Five — "though I don't agree with the truth of it, it's been told," he said of the film he didn't participate in — and added his own documentary will cover that chapter of his life, but will be so much more. In his own film, Webber will discuss being reared in Detroit's inner city while attending Detroit Country Day, a premier private secular school in the city's suburbs. His story will likely tap into a controversial part of his college career: Webber was indicted by a federal grand jury and stripped of his All-American honors by the NCAA because it was discovered that he was one of several athletes who borrowed money from now-dead University of Michigan booster Ed Martin. Webber moved past that scandal, becoming an NBA Rookie of the Year and a five-time NBA All-Star.
"It was big moment in my life, but to be defined by that would be pretty tough," Webber said of his Fab Five years.
Likewise, Unexpected deals with how you can choose whether or not to be defined by pivotal moments in your life. It was Gilbert who found Swanberg and Megan Mercier's script at Sundance last year and brought it to Webber, knowing that it fit in with Webber's mission to support black-centered stories.
"Chris Webber has this production fund where he wants to really support independent films, especially those with African-American storylines. He loved the script," Swanberg said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "He is, as it turns out, a really sensitive, funny, thoughtful guy who loves movies."
Should Unexpected get picked up for distribution — and it seems likely, as early reviewers already are saying that Bean and Smulders shine in their respective performances — Webber hopes to help get other films made that refuse to stick to conventional Hollywood narratives about race or situation.
"I didn't want Gail's character [Jasmine] to be a stereotypical black girl and I didn't want to see an emasculated black man," said Webber. "Her boyfriend in the movie may have not been the most positive guy, but Gail … saying 'I won't raise a man and a baby at the same time' is a message I want my sister, my cousins, and my aunties to have."
Breaking out of those stereotypes is important to him, particularly as a black man in sports. "Knowing the narrative that they tell on us and knowing it's not true and not by people who are in our situations," said Webber. "I feel it's my responsibility to have films show a different narrative."
And that narrative plays out in, well, unexpected ways within the film, as Sam and Jasmine make choices that define their future but which don't fall into stereotypes. Jasmine, an unmarried black teen mother-to-be, refuses to conform to the audience's notion of her situation. And while you might think you understand Webber's story just from looking at him, Jasmine's narrative proves that such quick judgments hold no weight in reality.
"When kids watch Unexpected, they'll know that we're good enough," Webber continued. "I want them to realize that we are a people who persevere. We have strong blood in our veins. I'm happy that I have a seat on this train."