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New Documentary Reggie Traces Baseball Star’s Legacy

Photo: courtesy of Prime Video.

The subject of Alexandria Stapleton’s new Prime Video documentary Reggie, like Ringo or Cher in his era or Madonna or Beyoncé in another, was known by his first name and needed no last. Reggie Jackson wasn’t a second banana like some other Reggies (Mantle or Miller). He was the “straw that stirred the drink,” as he once famously described himself (and later recanted). “Mr. October,” a moniker well earned for his World Series exploits. He even had his own candy bar. And he was one of those stars, one of those champions, whose fame transcended the game, a trailblazing Black athlete whose outspoken truths put him on the front page of the news and at odds with his managers, club owners, media, and the general public.

I’ll confess that at the time I wasn’t personally a fan, but that’s because his success with the Oakland A’s in the early ’70s eclipsed that of my beloved Baltimore Orioles: his A’s won three straight World Series Championships from 1972-74. When Jackson was traded, against his wishes, to the Orioles for the 1976 season, he spent a single underwhelming season there, grudgingly awaiting free agency, before signing with their division arch rival New York Yankees, where he would court controversy—or it him—and lead his new team to two consecutive World Series Championships. No matter what anyone said or thought of him, Reggie Jackson was a winner.

Reggie Jackson bats at Yankee Stadium.
Reggie Jackson bats at Yankee Stadium. Photo by Jim Accordino, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Despite his heroics, including his hitting three home runs in Game Six to clinch the 1977 World Series, being an outspoken Black man in the 1970s brought with it challenges. The game was run by white men. Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier, but when Jackson hit the bigs, the managers, coaches, owners, and scouts were all still white men. Henry Aaron’s challenge to Babe Ruth’s decades-old home run record brought him racist diatribes and death threats. Jackson’s challenges to the game’s white hierarchy and traditions made him, despite his incredible talent with the bat, a lightning rod for media attention.

The 1970s were a brash and colorful time as the game of baseball—and society more generally in the U.S.—became more integrated. Jackson’s Oakland A’s team wore garish-bright green-and-gold uniforms and were the first to play with facial hair (a big thing in the day). His big bat and trademark aviator-style glasses made “Reggie” one of New York’s most colorful celebrities as he battled owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin. Few stars of the era were as iconic, as recognizable, as celebrated as Reggie Jackson.

Reggie Jackson sits at a table.
Reggie Jackson in Reggie. Photo: courtesy Prime Video.

Director Alexandria Stephenson’s approach in her documentary Reggie is focused on Jackson’s legacy as the superstar himself reflects on his past. The aging slugger, now living in California, narrates much of the film’s content in staged studio interviews, some shot alone, others with a handful of his former Oakland A’s teammates (Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers) and other legends of the era (Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Hank Aaron). A few sequences take Jackson to Cooperstown for the annual Hall of Fame ceremonies and Florida for spring training to chat with Derek Jeter, current Yankees owner Bill Steinbrenner, and others.

That approach—interview-based, lots of narration, the camera focused on Jackson and his friends reminiscing—brings with it the benefit of the man telling his own story in his own way. For a Black man who in his prime often found dealing with the media challenging and dispiriting, Stephenson may be making a necessary choice. Jackson deserves to tell his story his own way. Yet, that does not necessarily make for the most engaging or cinematic of documentaries: Reggie suffers a bit under the weight of its own exposition, requiring the star and his friends to tell what another approach might have shown.

One can’t fault the film or its makers for good intentions. The film is the kind a certain Florida governor and aspiring Presidential candidate would likely be quick to ban, despite its rather benign G-rated content. Stephenson excels at situating Jackson’s own experience in the context of race relations across America: he began his minor-league career in Birmingham at the very height of the civil rights movement, was promoted to the big leagues in Oakland just at the rise of the Black Panther Party, and then landed in New York City as the highest-paid player in baseball as the Bronx was burning in what Spike Lee called “The Summer of Sam.”

While Reggie’s social-justice history is perfectly presentable and even in today’s political climate still controversial, it’s hard not to wish for a little Spike Lee mojo in this film. Lee is criminally underrated as a nonfiction filmmaker. His documentaries 4 Little Girls and When the Levee Breaks are astounding, daring works. Even his performance films, from Passing Strange to American Utopia, bring sizzle and magic from the stage to the screen. With most of Reggie narrated by old men reminiscing about a distant past and a filmic presentation that is bound to a fairly rote historical chronology, this documentary feels more dutiful than colorful.

Don’t get me wrong. Even this Orioles fan would wish for a Reggie Jackson documentary that sizzled and burned the way this charismatic slugger did at the plate and in the press. He’s earned it. On the field, not only did his teams win five World Championships, they logged winning records in 19 of his 21 seasons. Jackson was a hard-nosed, hard-driving player who more than a few times put his body on the line for a big play: the clips of him crashing into a bullpen wall or Tigers catcher Bill Freehan (no slouch himself) remind viewers of why the sport’s called “hardball,” and it’s not just because of the ball they use. Jackson finished his career with 563 career home runs (sixth all-time at the time of his retirement), a .490 career slugging percentage, and 14 All-Star team nominations.

On and off the field, the outspoken star was the type to swing for the fences. Along with those 563 home runs came 2,597 strikeouts—more than any major leaguer, and 13 more career strikeouts than hits. Somewhat surprisingly, this documentary doesn’t take the big cut like the ones for which its subject was known. It’s a good history, it’s Jackson’s own words, it’s got some nice vintage footage of his exploits. Reggie isn’t a home run, and it’s not a whiff, either. Consider Reggie a  bases-empty single to right field, one that can’t quite live up to the dynamic legacy it wants to honor.

Directed by Alexandria Stapleton from BRON Studios, Delirio Films, and Red Crown Productions in association with Creative Wealth Media, Reggie premieres on Prime Video March 24, 2023.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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