Film based on book about high school hoops on Navajo Nation will be shot in New Mexico

'Rez Ball' will be adaptation of Michael Powell's 2019 book 'Canyon Dreams'

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The film will be shot on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and focuses on a season with the fictional Chuska Warriors boys high school team.
  • A production company partially owned by LeBron James is helping produce the film for Netflix.
  • Filming is scheduled to take place next winter in New Mexico.

FARMINGTON — A book by a New York Times reporter about high school basketball on the Navajo Nation is being adapted for a film that will be partially produced by a production company owned by LeBron James, according to its author.

Michael Powell, a New York Times reporter since 2007, said the film is based on his book "Canyon Dreams: A Basketball Season on the Navajo Nation," which was released in late 2019. While the book chronicled the real-life exploits of the 2016-17 Chinle (Arizona) High School boys basketball team and its pursuit of a state title, Powell said the film, which has been titled "Rez Ball," will be shot on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and focuses on a season with the fictional Chuska Warriors boys high school team.

"The idea is to use the book as inspiration," Powell said.

Though filming hasn't begun, the project already has attracted a good deal of star power, led by the involvement of James, the future NBA Hall of Famer who has won championships with the Miami Heat, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers. James is partners in The SpringHill Company, which is producing the project for Netflix with Wise Entertainment.

Author Michael Powell's book "Canyon Dreams" is being made into a film that will be produced by LeBron James' production company.

More:NY Times author of "Canyon Dreams" examines prep basketball on Navajo Nation in new book

Additionally, "Rez Ball" has attracted two well-known figures from the Native filmmaking world. It will be directed by Emmy-nominated writer-director Sydney Freeland, while she and Sterlin Harjo wrote the screenplay. Harjo, who is Seminole and Muscogee, is the cocreator and showrunner for the hit Hulu series "Reservation Dogs," a program for which Freeland, who is Navajo, also has written and directed.

Powell said the original plan for "Rez Ball" called for filming to begin last fall and continue throughout the winter. But that plan was delayed because of the continued spread of COVID-19 across the Navajo Nation, a decision Powell said he understood and supported.

Limitations on the size of gatherings on the Navajo Nation simply made it impossible to shoot many of the scenes that would have been required for the film, he said.

"If you want to shoot a basketball game and show life in a locker room with a team, you're going to exceed (that)," Powell said. "That meant they couldn't film on the Navajo Nation, which they very much want to do."

Powell said that while he has no major involvement in the film, other than having consulted on the script, he is an admirer of the work of Freeland and Hargjo, and he believes the project is in good hands. Powell said he is a big fan of Harjo's "Reservation Dogs," a series that follows the exploits of four Native teenagers living in a small town in Oklahoma.

"I thought it was great, and I knew of his reputation even before that," Powell said. "And I know a lot of the credit goes to Wise Entertainment and LeBron's company, as well. Wise Entertainment was very, very instrumental in making sure this would be a production with a lot of top Native American talent."

Michael Powell

Powell acknowledged that it is always difficult for a writer to turn over something he or she has written to a creative team for its interpretation. But he said he has no worries about the ability of Harjo and Freeland to capture the spirit of his book.

"It's wonderful," he said of the pair's involvement. "I can't say I was surprised because I knew Wise, and this was their commitment to find people of that quality. It's fantastic to find people who understand and know that world quite a bit better than I do."

Powell said one of the reasons the project hasn't advanced more quickly than it has is that the producers were careful about putting together the right creative team.

"That made me fell a lot better, even though (the film) bears only a tangential relationship with the book in some instances," he said. "But that's fine, that's cool. I know it's going to be quality, so that's really good."

Casting decisions for the film have not been announced, and Powell said he has no idea where the film will be shot, other than somewhere in New Mexico. The fictional community of Chuska will be set on the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico, and Powell said he believes the producers have begun the process of scouting out a high school gymnasium to serve as the home of the Warriors team that will be the focus of the film.

Powell spent the better part of a year living in Chinle while researching his book, and he said he has maintained several friendships with players and coaches from that team, as well as other students and community members. The feedback he got from Chinle residents on the book was positive, he said, and he continues to hear from other folks on the Navajo Nation to this day.

"I recently got a letter from an English teacher in Red Mesa who told me she had her high school class read it," said Powell, whose book drew immediate and favorable comparisons to the seminal "Friday Night Lights" by H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, which portrayed a season with the Permian (Texas) High School football team. "And they all sent me letters about it. That was very, very, very nice to see. If I have any regrets, it's that it would have been great to do an event in Chinle, to have visited there after the book came out because the overall reaction was terrific. The people there were very good to me."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.