Film and TV

These four players helped desegregate the NFL; watch Forgotten Four at Mile High

Who was the first African American to play Major League Baseball? Jackie Robinson, of course. Larry Doby and Hank Thompson, two other black ball players who joined the majors in 1947, aren't remembered as well, although they experienced the same brutal racism that Robinson did. And although Robinson is often credited with transforming all professional sports in the United States, there were other athletes who did their part.

The documentary, Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football introduces four of the first African American football players to enter the NFL after its reintegration in 1946. Reintegration? That's right. The film tells a critical and forgotten history of the ebbs and flows of race relations in the NFL from racial cooperation to segregation and back through desegregation.

See also: Andrew Flack on I Go on Singing: Paul Robeson's Life in His Words and Songs

From 1920 to 1933, the NFL was multiracial: indigenous and black people participated fully. For example, famed singer, actor, civil rights activist and labor organizer Paul Robeson played pro football in the early 1920s while attending Columbia Law School. Segregation in pro football began with the tenure of George Preston Marshall, the owner of the Washington Redskins (a team that still has race-relations problems today), who pressured the NFL to shut out black players, a practice that lasted from 1933 until 1946.

The film focuses on four of the first African Americans enter the NFL after segregation: Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley and Bill Willis -- names that most fans probably don't know. It highlights the players' confrontations with racists, both on and off the field -- sometimes on their own teams. With ample interviews with their descendants and African American studies scholars, the film looks at the personal and political stakes these pioneers faced.

Forgotten Four looks a lot like a Ken Burns PBS extravaganza -- though it is mercifully shorter. Burns is known for epic series like Baseball, Jazz and The Civil War, works that chronicle United States history using Buddy Squires' evocative landscape cinematography, a wealth of archival footage, lulling soundtracks evoking the eras in focus, interviews and an omniscient voice of God narrator.

Like Burns's films, Forgotten Four builds up a myth of American exceptionalism, telling the stories of great individuals who confronted racism, changed the course of history and brought us closer to the promise of the founding fathers -- at least, so the patriotic story goes. And while the film doesn't address current events -- demands, for instance that the Washington Redskins adopt a less bigoted name -- it provides a needed gateway into conversations about racism in sports.

Saturday, football fans and history buffs should head to Sports Authority Field at Mile High where the film will screen at 1:30 p.m. But get there early, because the doors to the stadium will open at 8:45 a.m. so that the public can watch the Broncos practice at 10:45 a.m. and scrimmage at 11:55 a.m. At 1 p.m. players will sign autographs of the field. The day's events are free. The film premieres to national audiences on EPIX, Tuesday, September 23, 2014, at 6 p.m..

Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_Harris

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris