‘Uppity’ tells of racing beyond barriers to entry for black race-car driver Willy T. Ribbs

by Rhen Villarreal

When it comes to racing, the biggest battle is in reaching faster top-speeds and hitting the apex of your turns to edge out the competition. For Willy T. Ribbs, an African American race car driver whose career spanned over 25 years of clashing in an aggressive and dangerous sport; he had to overcome obstacles off of the track as well to make his vision for himself competing into reality. In the selection of documentaries available on Netflix and other streaming platforms, audiences can remain thrilled from home to enjoy the display of courage and competitive racing in ‘Uppity’. 

As Willy T. himself describes in the documentary from a modern low-lit garage, driving and competing were second nature to him from an early age, taking sentiments from his grandfather about always trying to be “better” than the limits set upon him. For the benefit of his racing career and the struggles that would lie ahead due to the color of his skin, he maintained focus and let it be known that he was a force to be reckoned with in the racing circuits he competed on. 

His competitive nature garnered attention from racists within the sport, experiencing both passive and overt prejudice in areas of America in the deep South, or even among the pit crews hired to oversee his safety and wellbeing. This led to an adjective and identifier that Willy embraced, even laughing about it as he says in the documentary how folks around the race track called him an “uppity n_____“. Producer and co-director Adam Carolla mentioned on his podcast while the production was taking place that they were going to be calling it that as the name of the film (which Willy wanted), but that after some constructive criticism they shortened it to “Uppity” to be able to make it a more accessible documentary.

What made this specific story worth documenting were the various barriers Willy had to overcome in what seemed like every year of his racing career from 1975-2001. Having come from a family whose father owned a small business, he didn’t have sponsors or financial support for most of his career. Even in moments of absolute brilliance initially overseas in England, he had trouble building momentum towards his ultimate career-goal of being an IndyCar driver.

 As it should be noted, many prolific black influencers from previous generations help Willy along the way, motivating and providing him with advice by those such as Muhammad Ali, Don King and early black stock-car driver Joie Ray. Seeing people of a given community stand up for someone in need and providing a helping hand is uplifting and validates the hard-work and continued struggle of marginalized communities. 

The doc is edited with footage and interviews of Willy’s experiences so you can see his personality on and off the track. As far as documentaries go, the pace keeps you wanting to see Ribbs’ next obstacle or great success. Because Willy provides a large amount of screen-time, one can connect even more to what he might have felt or thought about a specific instance in his life.

Even if you aren’t a fan of racing or motorsports, “Uppity” is a great documentary that not only showcases a story of someone overcoming bigotry, but presents a wealth of knowledge into how racing is organized or what the competitive life of a race-car driver might be like. 

“Uppity” is streaming currently on Netflix

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