Based on a True Story

Three weeks ago, in an excellent Washington Post article, Ann Hornaday examined how few Hollywood movies have been made about the civil rights era. A couple of weeks ago the USA Today ran a piece about the upcoming biopic of Ernie Davis, the first black Heisman Trophy winner. Davis followed the legendary Jim Brown at Syracuse University and would have played with Brown for the Cleveland Browns. Tragically, Davis was felled by leukemia and died without ever playing a down in the NFL.

Sports has played such a pivotal a role in advancing civil rights. But with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Ali) this remains untapped territory at the box office. We will need to see how much the success of Remember the Titans and Glory Road will open the floodgates. The Ernie Davis film is a good sign as is a rumored upcoming movie about Sweetwater Clifton, the first black man to play in the NBA.

Hollywood has often mined sportsí natural drama. Some of the best sports films, such as Rocky, Raging Bull, Field of Dreams and Eight Men Out cover themes far beyond what happens in the ring or on the field. Thatís why sports films with a civil rights theme make so much sense. Rightly or wrongly, Hollywood studios are often scared of films with too much political content. Hornadayís article also suggested that studio executives believe that civil rights stories will not play well overseas. Couching civil rights themes in a sports film avoid them coming off as too political. While these themes would still be there, they would be part of the sports film staples such as overcoming adversity and celebrating achievement. For those interested filmmakers, there are no shortage of stories to choose from. Just a few examples:

Jackie Robinson: This one should have been a gimme. Itís astounding that the 50th anniversary of Robinsonís breaking the baseball color barrier, and then the 60th, went by without any commemoration by Hollywood. Rumors have abounded about such a film, initially involving Spike Lee, and then later with the team from Ray. But nothing concrete yet. The impact of Robinson on baseball and on America cannot be overestimated. He also has such a compelling personal story. Robinson was in the center of the media spotlight for most of his career. He endured such a torrent of abuse from fans and other players that its amazing he was able to play at all. Not only did he play, he had a Hall of Fame career. He won the initial National League Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and won the league MVP two years later. The Brooklyn Dodgers won six pennants and their only World Series during his tenure. Robinson played himself in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story. That was at a time when Hollywood, due to the production code, could only touch on the hate directed at Robinson. Since then some TV movies have covered parts of his life, but not his whole career or even just 1947 when he first played in the majors. A great way to close a film would be the 1972 World Series, when Robinson threw out the first ball just three weeks before his death. He called for baseball to give blacks a shot to manage teams, a milestone he would not live to see. If this film does happen, how about Derek Luke for the lead? He is the right age (just a few years older than Robinson was in1947) and has the range, strength and talent to pull it off.

Hank Aaron: Another obvious one, especially as Barry Bonds approaches Aaronís home run record. In some ways this omission is even more mind boggling than Jackie Robinsonís. Other than a TV documentary, there has not been a single film about Hank Aaron. A few years ago Billy Crystal made *61, a superb HBO movie about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris chasing Babe Ruthís single-season home run record. As much pressure as Maris faced, that pales in comparison to what Aaron dealt with when he broke the Babeís career home run mark in 1974. Not only did many people not want Ruthís record broken, they really did not want it broken by a black man. Aaron received regular hate mail and death threats. His family was placed under FBI protection. After he hit the record-breaker, fireworks went off, which Aaronís mother thought were gunshots. Yet through it all, Aaron not only played well, but did so with remarkable dignity and class. The story is almost begging for a film treatment. Don Cheadle would be perfect as Aaron.

Jim Thorpe: Imagine that Bo Jackson, at the height of his fame, was also an Olympic gold medalist. That would give a glimpse into the greatness of Jim Thorpe. Born in Oklahoma, Thorpe was a Potawatomi Indian. He became a football All-American playing for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. In the 1912 Olympics Thorpe won gold meals in both the pentathlon and the decathlon, setting then-world records. He was unjustly stripped of his medals the following year after Olympic officials discovered he had played semi-pro baseball (the medals were restored posthumously in 1982). Undeterred, Thorpe played several seasons of major league baseball. More importantly, he was one of the key pioneers of professional football. Thorpe starred in and helped create what later became the NFL. He toured the country with the Oorang Indians, a pro football team comprised entirely of American Indians. In 1950, three years before his death, he was voted the best athlete of the first half of the 20th century. His story has it all Ė emerging from humble beginnings to reach spectacular heights, being victimized by heartless bureaucracy, and then making a lasting mark on American sports. A film about him would also depict the early leather helmet days of the NFL, unexplored ground in modern films. Hollywood took one stab at his life in 1951, Jim Thorpe All-American, with the non-Indian Burt Lancaster in the lead. Itís time to try again with an Indian actor. Perhaps Adam Beach (Flags of Our Fathers).

The Harlem Globetrotters: Hard to believe now, but basketball was once an overwhelmingly white sport. Sensing an opportunity, Abe Saperstein created the all black basketball team in 1926 and took them around the country. Saperstein served as owner, manager, coach, and publicity agent. Every other professional basketball team was white and would remain so until 1950. The Globetrotters helped popularize basketball around the country and around the world. They would regularly demolish their white opponents. In fact, thatís where the clowning came from. The Globetrotters would be ahead by so much that they had to use tricks to keep the crowds interested. Of course they later became known as much for the showmanship as for the basketball. This evolution would play well onscreen. Letís have Paul Giamatti as Saperstein and the current Globetrotters as their predecessors.

Joe Louis: The poignant part of this story is that Louis was a sports hero to millions of Americans, both black and white, at a time when blacks werenít even allowed to compete in most pro sports. His 1938 defeat of the German fighter Max Schmeling was a huge psychological victory for America over the myth of Aryan superiority. Overall, Louis reigned as heavyweight champion of the world for twelve years, both before and after WWII. There was a biopic done in 1953 and a couple of cable movies since, but as with the others, I think itís time to revisit Louis. After all, a couple of years ago Ron Howard directed Cinderella Man, about heavyweight champ Jim Braddock. Do you know who defeated Braddock and took his title? Thatís right: Joe Louis.

Adam Spector
August 1, 2007

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