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Stars on the Field but Shared Glory on Film
Black athletes were rarely in the earliest based-on-a-true-story sports epics (since, say, Ronald Reagan as the Gipper in 1940's "Knute Rockne All American") but when they were, they found their on-the-field stardom reduced to a supporting role.
In the socially and racially turbulent 1960s, Gale Sayers was a star college and pro running back, and was later inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. He wrote a memoir, "I Am Third," about his remarkable rise from Omaha to national stardom, but the movie made from that book was named for someone else: "Brian's Song." In the 1971 movie the central character was Brian Piccolo, Sayers's friend and teammate, who was white and dying of cancer. The film remains popular -- grown men still get misty-eyed talking about it -- but it boiled down to Sayers being a supporting character in his own story.
By the 1990s, the prevailing idea on screen about black athletes was mostly downbeat. It was about exploitation of vulnerable young black men to play for rich white colleges or pro teams; it was about white corruption and greed. There was a steady stream of these: "Above the Rim," "Blue Chips," "He Got Game" and the superb documentary "Hoop Dreams."
But the interracial harmony story line began percolating in "The Hurricane," in 1999, which featured an embittered black athlete and criminal turning toward the light. And in 2000 came Disney's "Remember the Titans."
It starred Denzel Washington as Boone at T.C. Williams High, taking over and integrating the team in 1971. In real life, the team played other integrated teams and roared to an undefeated, rarely-scored-upon state title. In the film, they play against all-white teams and Washington's character withstands racist referees, school boosters and team mutinies to win the championship on a last-second, miracle play.
After "Titans," which took in $115 million at the U.S. box office, more studios adopted the same formula: Revisit the civil rights era through a feel-good sports epic, based on a true story. Have some clearly identified white racists, some good white folks and a black hero, who is possessed of a greater morality, patience and ability. Show the whites helping in key moments, either with bureaucracy or running interference against racists. In the final reel, have the white and black main characters as close friends.
"That's actually the way it was a lot of the time, so it's not like it's completely made up," says Neema Barnette, a director and professor at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. In the late 1990s, Barnette, who is biracial, directed a made-for-television movie about Olympic hurdling champion Gail Devers, and says now that "I'm happy to see any positive film [about blacks]. I think it's changed how people look at these black athletes."
Charles Leavitt scripted "The Express," and was drawn to turning Davis's story into a metaphor for the racial politics of the era: "Taking the battle on the football field and making it about the larger battle going on in the country." The way to do that was to make the white coach much more of a figure in Davis's life than he actually was, in order to compress the racial dynamics into a single story line. "I elevated [the role] a little bit," he says.
Boone, the real-life coach portrayed in "Titans," says he has no problem with the film, though the movie's end shows his children being invited to play with a white coach's kids -- a feel-good ending that never happened. Still, the image of a town and a team coming together across racial lines was so powerful that seven years after the film left the multiplex, he still gives more than 80 speeches a year across the country.
"I was saying the same things before the movie came out," he says with a laugh. "It's just nobody wanted to listen. After the movie, everybody did."
Carl Weathers spent a lifetime in sports (as college football star and as an Oakland Raider) and the film industry (he played Apollo Creed in the "Rocky" films and is on the African American steering committee at the Directors Guild of America). He says black sports movies aren't really what they appear to be.
"These movies create the illusion that they're told from a new, ethnic perspective," he says. "There's no rancor intended here, but if we're being honest and candid about what we're seeing . . . it's that the Caucasian coach or mentor or drill sergeant or leader is the figure who inspires the young ethnic person. The guy's ability and drive is somehow superseded by the Caucasian person who is primarily responsible for the ethnic person's success."
Race at the movies, race in America: twin worlds, still filled with shadows and hope.