Into the Future They Strode
One of the missed moments in my life is not having met Woody Strode in person. My dad and I had tickets to see him speak before a showing of John Ford’s SERGEANT RUTLEDGE at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, but filming of Mario Van Peebles’ POSSE held him up and he was unable to attend. That’s still the only time I’ve ever seen a John Ford film on the big screen. And while not the best print, it was still pretty amazing. The Autry planned to reschedule Strode, but it never came to fruition. And you barely even get Strode in POSSE when it finally came out. Around that same time, I first found and read Strode’s autobiography GOAL DUST. At that time, I only knew Strode the actor, not the athlete, and the book neatly encapsulates an incredible life – Olympic art model, decathlete, college football at UCLA, professional wrestling, breaking the pro football color barrier, and finally the film career. What strikes though, as you read it, is that for all these accomplishments, it’s the most laid-back and soft-spoken autobiography I’ve ever read.
That laid-back approach can be said about the documentary FORGOTTEN FOUR: THE INTEGRATION OF PRO FOOTBALL directed by Johnson McKelvy and written by Aaron Cohen. This hour long documentary released on Epix in late-2014 covers the 1946 pro football season when Strode and Kenny Washington for the Los Angeles Rams and Marion Motley and Bill Willis for the Cleveland Browns broke the long-standing color barrier in pro football. The documentary starts with Strode’s son, with the children of these men, talking about their fathers. It’s a very powerful opening. How these men carried themselves – in life, not just in football. In everything they did. As fathers. Very effective. Incredibly powerful.
The film then, though, diverts into a longish section framing the times of pro football in the 1920s, the effect the Great Depression had on that climate, and the color barrier that is subsequently erected. The footage of the Depression itself is quite impressive. It’s the flip side from the rural dust bowl and urban hobos you usually see. It’s Harlem. It’s the inner cities. And again, highly effective. However, in such a short film, this backdrop takes up fully a third of the film, and it takes away from the time we get to spend with the four players.
Unfortunately, all four of these pioneers had passed on by the time McKelvy started his interviews for this film. There isn’t even any old interview footage of them, or Paul Brown who is noted as the Branch Rickey for Motley and Willis. The film does falter for this lack. There are enough of their contemporaries left alive to make some interesting interviews, but they really serve to whet the appetite for a main course that never comes. Their children repeating anecdotes about their fathers only makes you hunger more to hear Kenny Washington, to hear Bill Willis. The footage of them playing is rather sparse as well, although perhaps that can be expected that two burgeoning, competing football leagues perhaps would not have so many mementos left from that time, even though the Browns won the All-America Football Conference title that year and the Rams played in arguably the most photographed city in the world, where Washington and Strode were local celebrities. Even the relationship of Washington and Strode to Jackie Robinson is given short shrift.
For me, the hardest part is that I know enough about Strode to want more. His life as presented here is a vacuum of UCLA collegiate football and the one year he plays for the Rams. His acting career disappears into the ether. His career in the Canadian Football League, championship teams, isn’t mentioned at all. There is so much more that I want to see, and I can only then extrapolate on to the other three and what else their lives may have entailed. Kenny Washington is noted as the toast of Southern California. He could write his own ticket. The most popular man in the City. I want to know more about that. What does that mean? I want McKelvy to go Ken Burns and give me seven plus hours of integration – an hour on the 1920s, an hour on that specific history on football to 1946, and an hour on Willis, an hour on Washington, an hour on Motley, an hour on Strode, and finally an hour on their legacy. I’d watch that. More than once.
All of which means FORGOTTEN FOUR does its job. It informs. It enlightens. It excites. And it engages. It makes you think. I hear the stories of Willis and Motley, Washington and Strode, who they were, what they did, and I want to strive as well. To be thought of well. To accomplish under adversity. As these men did. As they went above and beyond. That is the true measure that McKelvy presents here.
FORGOTTEN FOUR: THE INTEGRATION OF PRO FOOTBALL is available now for viewing on Netflix after its original presentation on Epix in September 2014. GOAL DUST: THE WARM AND CANDID MEMOIRS OF A PIONEER BLACK ATHLETE AND ACTOR is currently out of print, but is available on Kindle and used. Watch the film. Read the book.