Navarro Cheer displays its winning ways.
When documentarian Greg Whiteley was looking for additional footage for his Netflix series Last Chance U, about a junior college football team, his field producer, Chelsea Yarnell, suggested the cheerleaders on the sidelines.
Filming them, Whiteley noticed a marked difference between their standard game-night cheering and the challenging sets they created during their practice.
"I thought I knew what cheerleading was, and it turns out I had no idea," he says. "I thought that maybe other people didn't know, and they'd be interested. That was the whole genesis of the show."
That show is Cheer, and his instincts were spot on. In six episodes, the Netflix docuseries follows Navarro Cheer, a team from Navarro Junior College in Corsicana, Texas, that has stacked up 13 national championships, as they try for yet another win.
"The moment I talked to their coach, Monica Aldama, on the phone, I knew there was a story," Whiteley says. "She was exactly who you'd want in a main character."
A smart, ambitious leader, she is as hard on the team — pushing them well past their limits — as she is compassionate with them, often at their lowest moments.
Whiteley and his crew filmed everything from broken bodies to wounded psyches, without judging any of it.
"We may show people with their warts, but we try to render those warts with as much generosity and care as we can," he says. "I believe I can arrive at a deeper truth, faster, by filming people the way I would want to be filmed if the situation was reversed."
His subjects returned his faith in them. When team member Lexi Brumback had to contend with someone posting private pictures of her online, she allowed her ordeal to be filmed, telling Whiteley that she did so in the hope that her story would help viewers realize they don't have to be victims.
All the team members display both strengths and insecurities, having endured childhood traumas that somehow led them to the mat to find a new kind of family.
"They have a certain demeanor that belies their toughness," Whiteley notes. "They are full of optimism, they are full of cheer — pardon the pun — but often they're smiling through considerable pain. In some cases that pain is physical, and in some cases it's also emotional."
The bone-crushing, soul-stirring action has proved irresistible to viewers of all kinds.
On the Oscars' red carpet, beloved team member Jerry Harris (a "mat talker," he exhorts the squad from the sidelines during competitions) chatted up celebrity fans including Billie Eilish and Regina King; Aldama and several cheerleaders made the rounds of talk shows.
Whiteley wasn't surprised by the response — just that it took so long for people to see what he saw. "From my very first movie, I've always expected that the main subject would end up on Ellen or The Tonight Show. I guess I'm optimistic that way," he says. "It's fun to finally do one that did."
Completing Cheer's takeover of the zeitgeist, Saturday Night Live spoofed the series in January. "That was a truly surreal moment," Whiteley says. "I remember thinking to myself, 'I should just retire. What else do I have to accomplish?'"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2020