Sports movies – whether in narrative or documentary form –
remain popular in world media culture for their spirit of invoking a sense of
teamwork, praising the underdog, and various other tropes that competitive
games highlight in our lives. And
none of these sports movies are more attractive than the American football
story, heard through grunts and hits and the yelling of the coach to ultimate
So it is refreshingly odd when a new project comes down the
pike that stands out from the rest, which we see in the preview for director
Maya Washington’s new documentary, “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar.”
Told through Maya’s eyes, as the youngest daughter of
legendary Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Gene Washington, “Red Cedar” follows
the college lives and legacies of four highly decorated Michigan State University
football players: defensive lineman Bubba Smith (later best known as
‘Hightower’ in the “Police Academy” movies), rover back George Webster, running
back Clinton Jones, and Washington himself. It is the personal story of these
young Black athletes, recruited from the South at the peak of segregation,
shining a light on the determination of the integrated Michigan State team that
50 years ago won the 1965 (and ‘66) National Championships. All four men took four of the top eight draft spots in the 1967
NFL draft, a move no team has come close to since.
more than that, “Red Cedar” highlights Maya (whose award-winning film “White
Space” was featured here on S&A and is also currently airing on network
television as a selection of African American Short Films) as she gains a better understanding
of her father, who seldom spoke to her about the tribulations of those years
and his career in the NFL, akin to how a soldier never talks about his war
experiences. While football cannot
be directly related to serving in the armed forces, fighting for your life and
spirit in the backdrop of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement leaves severe
emotional and physical battle scars that can run very deeply, wounds one can
imagine Washington must bear.
“Red Cedar,” both Gene and Maya’s stories unfold to tell a story that unites
the past and the present.
as importantly, the film outlines the role that Hall of Fame coach Duffy
Daugherty played in establishing the racial demographics in football today. As
the filmmakers state, “Duffy recruited players from the South through what was
known as the “Underground Railroad” of college football. The success of his
teams forced other programs to reexamine the rules and give scholarships and
starting positions to African American players.” Daugherty’s policies eventually led the way to the racial demographics now
seen in the NFL and SEC (college Southeastern Conference).
The film title itself is a
play on the Michigan State University fight song.
Cedar” is in post-production and expected to be released in early 2016. While the entire project was funded by
donations and determination, funds are still being raised for finishing and
licensing costs. Go to www.throughthebanksoftheredcedar.com for more information and to see how you can help them complete the documentary.