The EPIX network recently released a documentary entitled “Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football.” This documentary detailed how Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Bill Willis, and Marion Motley re-integrated pro football in 1946 after a 12-year NFL ban on African-American players.
The documentary is, as I expected, a colossal disappointment on so many levels. I guess that means I’m in overall agreement with Variety, which called the documentary “unexpectedly forgettable” and described it as follows:
“It’s such a stiff, by-the-numbers approach that ‘Forgotten Four’ provides little insight, feeling like the Hallmark Cards version of an HBO or ESPN ‘30 for 30’ documentary…as documentaries go, ‘Forgotten Four’ merely demonstrates the difference between suiting up and actually being worthy of the big leagues.”
Obviously, I’m coming into this from a unique perspective, as a vocal advocate on behalf of Duke Slater. But here are a few of the reasons that this documentary left me more annoyed than anything else.
Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football
Let’s start with the documentary’s ridiculous title. “Forgotten Four?” Bill Willis and Marion Motley are two of the most decorated, honored NFL players of the 1950s. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and in the Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor. That doesn’t scream “forgotten” to me.
Granted, many football fans today may not know Willis and Motley by name…but how many 1950s-era players – period – could they name? Willis and Motley are no more forgotten than any other great football player of their generation, as far as I can see. It’s almost like this documentary is telling two separate, parallel stories – the honored and decorated Willis and Motley and the (by comparison) less heralded Washington and Strode…although Kenny Washington has received a ton of press over the past five years, so I question whether he can accurately be described as “forgotten,” either.
Of course, these four men could be called forgotten when compared to Jackie Robinson, the man who shattered baseball’s color ban. The promotion of the documentary positively hammers away at the “forgotten four”-Jackie Robinson parallel, made far easier by the fact that two of the “forgotten four” – Washington and Strode – were college teammates with Robinson at UCLA. But while the documentary laments that Robinson’s story is much more well-known than that of the “forgotten four,” it doesn’t adequately note why exactly that is.
“Forgotten Four” alleges that the sole reason Robinson’s feat is heralded as more historically significant is because baseball was relatively more popular than pro football at the time. If that were the case, there would be understandable and justified outrage over how much less recognized the breaking of pro football’s color barrier was. But there’s a lot more to it than that…the shattering of the color barriers in baseball and pro football in the late 1940s are two events that haven’t been recognized as equivalent historically, because, well, they weren’t equivalent historically.
It’s exactly that kind of shallow, surface-level “history” that “Forgotten Four” revels in. It’s cheap, faux history that draws absurd conclusions from an oversimplified premise. “Forgotten Four” futilely tries to drum up a “this is as culturally relevant as Jackie Robinson!” sentiment that anyone with an ounce of common sense can see through.
On a related note, let’s clarify that these four men merely re-integrated pro football in 1946 after a 12-year color ban. The NFL was integrated from 1920-1933, and it was the dozen African-American players who suited up during that time frame who truly “integrated” the league.
So other than the “forgotten” part and the “integration” part, the title is totally accurate. That’s two glaring misrepresentations in the title of the documentary alone. As you can tell, we’re not off to a great start.
The Marginalization of Duke Slater
“Forgotten Four” begins by shocking viewers with graphic images of African-Americans being lynched, burned, and otherwise massacred. “Forgotten Four” producer Ross Greenburg, a highly-acclaimed, award-winning sports documentarian, suggests that this was done to create context, but he dwells on the topic for so long that it seems like a jarring diversion from the topic at hand. You’d think there’s enough to talk about with these four men and the careers and lives they had that you wouldn’t need to pad an hour-long documentary with such extended digressions.
When the documentary finally turns its attention to football, Greenburg starts, as you might expect, by mentioning the era from 1920-1933 in which 12 African-American players participated in the NFL. As one of the main spokesmen for Duke Slater – one of those 12 – I was curious how “Forgotten Four” would address this era of pro football. Another recent documentary, “Third and Long,” completely ignored the key story of Duke Slater, and I wanted to see if “Forgotten Four” would do any better.
It didn’t. It probably did worse, if that’s possible.
In a previous review of “Third and Long,” I had this to say:
“Of this ‘pioneering band of brothers,’ Duke Slater was clearly the most accomplished and decorated of them all. For that, he gets his photograph flashed on the screen twice for about one second each. Congratulations!
Paul Robeson, Joe Lillard, and Ray Kemp (each of whom played at most two seasons in the NFL) are all called out by name. Duke Slater, who played in the NFL for ten years, gets treated like just another face in the crowd. That’s just absurd.”
Well, at least “Third and Long” flashed Slater’s picture twice, I guess. “Forgotten Four” lauds “men like Fritz Pollard, Bobby Marshall, and Paul Robeson” and goes on to talk about Joe Lillard and Ray Kemp. Again, Robeson, Kemp, and Lillard – despite their extremely brief careers – are all called out by name, but not a single, solitary mention of the most influential, decorated African-American athlete of the era. Not one.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this shallow, oft-repeated, faux history of pre-World War II African-Americans in the NFL is the continued exaggeration of Fritz Pollard’s legacy. Let me say this again, to be clear: Pollard was a tremendous athlete and coach, a great figure in NFL history. He’s a deserving Hall of Famer, and as the second-greatest African-American NFL player of his era, he’s certainly worthy of praise.
Yet Fritz Pollard is, again, singled out as the top black player of the era. USA Today’s Jarrett Bell declared, “Fritz Pollard is the gold standard, really.” Hall of Fame historian Joe Horrigan added, “Pollard became the key.”
With due respect to Bell and Horrigan, Fritz Pollard was not considered the “key” or the “gold standard” for African-American NFL players during the 1920s. That’s a revisionist history that has only been accepted the last decade or two, thanks in large part to the fine work being done by the Fritz Pollard Alliance and Pollard’s 2005 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. Those two factors have given Pollard a name recognition that has thus far eluded Slater. But let’s be clear, again: Duke Slater had – by far – the longest, most decorated NFL career of any pre-World War II African-American, and it’s not even all that close.
I’ll elaborate more in another post, since this one has gone on too long already, but “Forgotten Four” similarly over-simplifies the circumstances surrounding the NFL’s 1934-1945 color ban as well. “Forgotten Four” just repeats well-worn, inaccurate histories of both the participation of African-Americans from 1920-1933 (specifically with the marginalization of Duke Slater) and the causes of the color ban from 1934-1945 (by placing the entirety of the blame on George Preston Marshall and the Great Depression). In a documentary about the four African-Americans who re-integrated pro football in 1946, I hoped they would at least get the back story correct.
Ignorance vs. Mythology
Now, you might think I’m being too hard on this documentary…after all, none of this has anything to do with the “forgotten four” players! However, the accuracy of the back story is supremely important, because it’s over 40 minutes into a less than one-hour documentary before Washington, Strode, Willis, and Motley actually take the football field in 1946. “Forgotten Four” spends so much time setting up the story that it pretty much glosses over the players’ actual pro careers. For a pro football documentary, there’s precious little actual pro football in it.
Instead, the documentary quickly moves on to how these players have been “forgotten”. I mentioned at the beginning of this article how that word is a misnomer, particularly applied to Willis and Motley, two Hall of Fame players widely recognized as terrific stars. Because this “forgotten” theme seems to be advanced primarily on behalf of Kenny Washington, I was pleasantly surprised how little time the documentary spent on Washington’s fledgling Hall of Fame candidacy.
Mostly, the film wraps up with Jarrett Bell’s acknowledgment that Willis, Motley, Washington, and Strode never received the adulation or recognition for breaking pro football’s color barrier that Robinson received for being the first African-American MLB player in six decades. Again, there are perfectly understandable reasons for that, which I’ll discuss later. Suffice it to say, the two accomplishments haven’t gone down in history as being recognized the same, because they weren’t the same.
In the end, while Variety blasted “Forgotten Four” for providing little insight, I’m going to go ahead and blast it too. But my criticism is due to the fact that the little insight it did provide was oft-repeated, weak, shallow, erroneous “history” that showed almost no original research or even critical thinking skills. If you’re bragging about how you’re going to “catch the American public off guard with this stuff” and use this documentary as a rare opportunity to educate fans about pro football history, do us all a favor…paint an accurate picture and get it right.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of this. It’s true that a lot of people don’t know much about this type of history, which means that when someone views this documentary, it will color much of what they accept as fact about the history of African-Americans in pro football. With that great power, as they say, comes great responsibility. And your responsibility when educating viewers about history is not to sacrifice accuracy for a “dramatic narrative”. In selling this film, Greenburg violates that responsibility six ways to Sunday.
Frankly, I’d rather have an uneducated public than a wrongly-educated one, and ignorance is preferable, in many ways, to widely-held myths. It’s much better to have the public not know anything about a subject than “know” a skewed, inaccurate history. “Forgotten Four” was an opportunity to set the record straight about the history of African-Americans in pro football, and it blatantly dropped the ball.
Tagged with: African-Americans in Pro Football • Bill Willis • Bobby Marshall • Duke Slater • Forgotten Four • Fritz Pollard • Jackie Robinson • Jarrett Bell • Joe Horrigan • Joe Lillard • Kenny Washington • Marion Motley • NFL color ban • Paul Robeson • Pro Football Hall of Fame • Ray Kemp • Third and Long documentary • Woody Strode
Filed under: General
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!