When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a New York Yankee. Specifically, I wanted to be “Mr. October,” Reginald Martinez Jackson, the subject of Alexandria Stapleton’s documentary “Reggie,” on Prime Video starting Friday.
That’s a bold statement to make in The Boston Globe. But if you thought a little Black kid growing up 3 miles from Manhattan in the 1970s would have ever considered joining the Red Sox, you’re sadly mistaken. Religion and sports fandom are two things we’re born into; the stork placed me in a family full of Baptists and Yankees fans.
“Reggie” reminded me why I wanted to be Jackson. Growing up, I gravitated toward Black athletes who ran their mouths without fear of offending the people who preferred they knew their place. Several clips show Jackson spouting opinions and soundbites to a New York City press eager for drama and controversy.
The Hall of Fame slugger appears onscreen throughout the film, talking about his career as well as interviewing other sports figures like Julius Erving and Derek Jeter. He remains as outspoken and brash as he was when I first discovered him during his 1977 World Series-winning baseball season with you-know-who. The straw that once stirred the drink is back to stir it one more time.
“We are going to have some conversation today about my past,” Jackson says in this documentary, sitting before a spare backdrop. “I don’t think it’s checkered.”
In his ′70s heyday, Jackson was one of the most popular Black players in sports. He appeared in endless commercials. He hit three home runs in that ′77 World Series game. He demanded an enormous contract with the Yankees, and his battles with Yankees manager Billy Martin were legendary. He also lent his name to the worst candy bar in the history of sweets, a travesty that looked like a cow pie and tasted almost as bad.
But this isn’t just a movie about Reggie Jackson. Stapleton uses his career as a means to examine America’s checkered history regarding race and civil rights, leading up to the Black Lives Matter movement and the current battle for diversity and inclusion in sports team ownership and management. The director does not have to strain to find the parallels.
For example, Reggie’s father, Martinez Jackson, played in the Negro Leagues. Reggie Jackson started for the Athletics’ farm team in Birmingham at the height of white supremacist “Bull” Connor’s reign as public safety commissioner. A year after the Kansas City A’s called Jackson up in 1967, the team moved to Oakland during the era of the Black Panthers. In 1974, the same year that Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record by hitting his 715th home run, Jackson won the last of his three World Series with the Oakland A’s.
Through strategically placed archival footage, “Reggie” keeps us informed of the civil rights struggles going on outside the baseball diamond when Jackson was racking up these milestones. Additionally, Jackson’s contemporary interviews with players like Aaron and former teammates provide firsthand accounts of their experiences navigating racism on and off the field.
The best scenes are ones that highlight Stapleton’s parallel storytelling — they feature Jackson’s Birmingham teammates Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers, who were roommates. Rudi reminisces about sharing their apartment with Jackson in 1967 when he couldn’t find a place to stay. He then recounts how white residents of the neighborhood threatened to burn down the apartment complex because Jackson was residing there. Fingers, still adorned with his glorious trademark mustache, discusses how he had to bring food to Jackson because no place would serve him.
Later, we learn that Jackson attempted to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers; his partners included Bill Gates and Paul Allen. “That group could have bought the National League,” he says. The sale would have changed sports history by finally establishing a team with some Black ownership back in 1998. The deal fell through. “I didn’t fit into the club,” Jackson says angrily, referring to the league’s owners. “Can I say it any plainer? You want me to say because I was colored I wasn’t a fit? It’s pretty easy to realize that.” It’s the one time he shows the full brunt of his frustration.
“I’m going to speak the truth,” Jackson says, “and the truth is painful.” That it is, but there’s an optimism present in this film even as it’s pointing out how history repeats itself. Stapleton reflects this cycle by bringing us to the present moment of kneeling protests in sports and current efforts to ban discussions about racism in schools.
“Reggie” is so well-constructed you don’t feel like it’s belaboring its points. It’s an engrossing watch, even if you hate those Damn Yankees.
Directed by Alexandria Stapleton. Starring Reggie Jackson, Hank Aaron, Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Julius Erving, Derek Jeter. 104 minutes. On Prime Video. PG-13 (F-bombs, racial slurs)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.