Fantastic Four is a tremendous film from renowned producer Ross Greenburg about the integration of the NFL in 1946 by Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley and Bill Willis.
The documentary gives a detailed history of football starting in the 1920s on the college and pro levels and a stark look at race relations in the country at that time. The four players went through a lot of adversity, but their experiences were quite different. Motley and Willis were treated very well by the Cleveland Browns and their coach Paul Brown, whereas Washington and Strode went through a lot of adversity with the Los Angeles Rams.
At a screening of “Forgotten Four,” Jets radio announcer Bob Wischusen moderated a panel with Greenburg, former Jets Wesley Walker and Greg Buttle, and USA Today sports columnist Jarrett Bell, who is one of the commentators in the documentary.
Ross Greenburg said, “Wes (Smith) and I met probably about eight months ago and we started talking about this story about the integration of pro football, and Wes and I started talking, and Wes said, “And by the way, Marion Motley. Bill Willis, Kenny Washington, and Willie Strode integrated pro football in 1946, and I said, ‘Whow, wait, ’46, that’s a year before Jackie Robinson.’ He said, ‘yeah, I guess it is.’ There’s our story, let’s go right for the jugular and tell the story of these great courageous guys, and that’s what we did.”
Wischusen said that “Jackie Robinson was poignantly aware what the meaning of his career was and the significance of being the lone guy breaking the color barrier (in baseball),” and he asked Greenburg and Jarrett Bell if that was true for Motley, Willis, Washington, and Strode.
Bell said, “Yeah, I think so, I got to know Bill Willis, who was the last of the four to pass away, and I got to know him for probably the last four, maybe five years of his life, and we got to talk about these things. One thing that was interesting was the crossover of baseball and football, he knew Jackie Robinson, Jackie Robinson knew him, they knew each other because there was a lot of pride in the black community so, consequently, just like when the Cleveland Browns would play, or when the Rams would travel, they would attract black audiences, black fans would come to those games and so they were aware there was some significance there.
“I don’t think they tried to carry that as the ultimate badge because Willis and Motley ended up being Hall of Famers who played many years with the Browns, so I think their thing was really just to be good players, but I think they were aware of that circumstance at least from what I’ve been able to find out about them. Then, just to add, with Washington, remember he played for six years on the West Coast with the Hollywood Bears same sort of thing, even those years in semi-pro football, they drew a lot of fans, a lot of black fans.”
Greenburg said, “When we started to meet the families, they were mystified that, for all these years, nobody had really recognized their family, the four men. I think, you know, it was wonderful to bring them into the fold and we felt strongly about it, it was important to allow them to finally get their just due and give it to their fathers and grandfathers.”
Wesley Walker, who played college football at California-Berkeley, said of his thoughts and experiences, “It’s very difficult when you see racism. I went to Cal-Berkeley, where I was sort of a black hippie, I didn’t see color. Growing up, you hear about Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, I remember finally hearing the stories, when you see the true-life problems that existed and to a certain extent that still exist in this country, I never understood racism, prejudice just because you were maybe different, the color of your skin and you know you had maybe the same abilities, you’re a human being, that’s all I ever looked at.
“When you look at a situation like this and know some of the things those guys had to endure, I think of myself being in that situation, ‘could I really handle a situation like that?’ That’s what Jackie Robinson did, that’s what Marion Motley went through. I don’t know if I could have handled that, that’s a lot to carry a burden, and what I get from this film is a sense of history and a story that needs to be told, and you (Greenburg) do just a wonderful job. More of these stories need to be told, just what people have been through and where we’ve come to now.”
Walker said of perceptions in football, “I remember, back in the day, blacks couldn’t be quarterbacks, you played linebacker, that’s your position because those were so-called smart positions mentally and we see it now. I was telling this story, one of my teammates, Marty Lions had pointed out, did a grand opening last year and they had was a big Jets cake, and he said to me, ‘look at the cake, they’re all black players,’ and I said, ‘yeah, you didn’t say that when we were growing up because they were all white players’ and that’s something that I wouldn’t even think about, but there’s a big disparity in that time and now, but we’ve progressed and we’re getting better. I compliment you (Greenburg) on the ability to tell this story that people need to know some of the things that people have through and struggled to make things better for those now participating in this sport.”
Former Jet Greg Buttle said, “My perspective obviously is from a white perspective. I grew up in the ’60s, and it was unbelievable change what happened from when I was in high school and then going forward to Penn State. When I started to watch this, it reminded me there’s two movies I’ve seen that it was a feeling of disgust when I watched it. That was Saving Private Ryan, when you watch those soldiers getting slaughtered coming off the LSDs in the D-Day landing, your stomach turns, I got the same feeling when I watch this.
“To be able to go out there and see what our black friends went through, and maybe not so many here, but back from the ’60s and the ’50s, part of my era, you look at that and you go ‘that is so, so wrong and so uncomfortable’ and you look at the way we’re progressing today with everything, and certainly there are going to be differences forever, I don’t care who you are, there’ll be differences, but I think this was so good in the way it depicted the truth of what we are, whether we’re black or we’re white, it depicts what we are. We may not like what we are…It gives you an opportunity to have introspection and you take a look at your life and say ‘can I do this better, can I be a better person?’ and I think that’s what I got out of this, it’s unbelievable.”
Greenburg said of some choice of imagery he used, “We did want to show the stark photographs of the lynchings because I think a lot of times in films or docus, you see the lone black trying to drink from the colored water fountain or going into the colored bathroom, but you don’t really see the stark racism that these people dealt with, so it was important to us to bang that home and to give you the reality of what it was like because a lot of times I think in the present day, and there still is racism, let’s not kid ourselves, we don’t know where we are today if we don’t know where we have come from, what was the ground zero. Well, that was surely post-Civil War and slavery itself was ground zero, and that was important to show and it gave you an idea of the time period and what these four men had to deal with in society.”
“FORGOTTEN FOUR” airs this Tuesday, September 23rd, at 8:00 pm on EPIX