Star athletes in America are often expected to have brash personalities. This delights or alienates fans to different degrees, and for different reasons. A star athlete with a brash personality who also happens to be Black is apt to infuriate a large and vociferous corner of fandom.
The baseball great, Reggie Jackson, who distinguished himself on several teams but was especially critical to the success of the New York’s Yankees in the late 1970s, was certainly a case in point. In 1976, George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner at the time, paid $3.5 million — back in the day, that was a lot of money — to acquire Jackson. The right fielder, because of his frankness, immediately made himself unpopular. “The reason you’re uncomfortable with me is because I’m the truth,” Jackson says in a contemporary interview conducted for this documentary, directed with measured assurance by Alexandria Stapleton. While that’s a statement some would take issue with, this movie is about Jackson’s truth, which, as it happens, is about a lot more than himself.
Hence “Reggie,” taking its cue from Jackson himself, considers the famed athlete’s career in a manner more reflective than splashy. Yes, there is a bit at the beginning when Jackson shows off his fleet of well-kept vintage cars in a bright shiny row of garages at his home in Monterey. But soon Jackson gets real in a more meaningful way.
He himself interviews several key figures in his life. The first is the home run legend, Hank Aaron, who died in 2021. The pair talk about racism, the civil rights movement and the way baseball fans took umbrage when a Black player caught up with the stats established by a white player in the past. “I never in my life thought about Babe Ruth,” Aaron, a quiet man, says, raising his voice ever so slightly.
Later, talking about a stereotypical perception of Black athletes, Jackson says, “They’re not angry. They’re hurt. They’re disappointed. They’re searching for dignity.”
And while the viewer might expect the film’s tone, and Jackson’s demeanor, to quieten as the narrative winds down into the present day, it does not. As a young player, Jackson stood on the field of the 1972 World Series and heard Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, say, “I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit that I am going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a Black face managing in baseball.” Once he stopped playing, Jackson fervently tried to make Robinson’s vision a reality, attempting to buy first the Oakland As, then the Dodgers. His bids did not succeed. “I wasn’t a good fit,” he says indignantly, almost spitting out the words.
Even as this movie goes deep on still vital topics, it doesn’t skimp on baseball dish. Jackson recalls that his laudatory nickname, Mr. October, was actually coined contemptuously by his teammate, the beloved Yankee captain Thurman Munson, with whom Jackson had an uneasy relationship. And the detailed accounts of his greatest hits — like when he hit three home runs in a single game in the 1977 World Series — are exhilarating.
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