The Leaders: Breaking the Racial Barriers in the NFL – DVD Review

Warner Brothers / 2007 / 45 Minutes / Unrated
Available at / Now Available

The Movie

With another successful season in the books, the NFL is now at the height of popularity and reigns over the American sports landscape in a way it had never experienced before. The players of the past could probably not have imagined a day when professional football reigned so supreme over all other major sports, especially those African-American players who had to struggle to earn the respect of the men in their own league, much less the rest of profession sports. This is the subject of the new NFL Films documentary The Leaders: Breaking the Racial Barriers in the NFL, a good, but slight look at the rise of the African-American in professional football.

Examining the struggles and benchmarks of African Americans through the years – from Fredrick “Fritz” Pollard’s exploits in the 1920’s to Tony Dungy’s coaching triumph in Super Bowl XLI – the documentary covers many chapters of this story that very few would probably know beforehand. What was surprising to me was just how early professional football was actually trying to get integrated, as Fritz Pollard became not only the NFL’s first African-American Player, but also its first black coach, which seems like an insanely under-appreciated accomplishment considering it would be decades before the next one would come along. Unfortunately, as the NFL was getting more and more integrated, adding at least 13 more black players, with the Great Depression came a color line that saw all minorities excised from the league.

Much of the rest of the documentary deals with African Americans trying to re-establish themselves in the league after WWII in several different facets of the game, with men like Woody Strode and Kenny Washington having to suffer through racial prejudice early on in this period in order to try and make it on the field. Eventually, we get to titans of the sport; men like David “Deacon” Jones and especially Jim Brown. These were men that helped shaped what the game would eventually become, men ahead of their time who paved the way for modern football.

On the surface, this is a pretty good documentary, with NFL films making the most out of their own archival footage. I especially like how well produced the doc’s interviews are, using green screen behind many of the interviewees to make them look new, even if the footage is decades old. There’s also a nice mix of players and historians to back up the stories that are told here, getting some really terrific first hand accounts of the events that took place to help shape the landscape of the NFL.

Unfortunately, at only about 45 minutes, this isn’t as in-depth a look at this subject as there needs to be. The Leaders feels as if its kind of a Cliffs Notes version of this story, which deserves a treatment more reverential, much like the documentaries of Ken Burns have given to their subjects. With nice interviews and interesting stories throughout, this NFL Films presentation is a nice startup lesson on this subject, but those looking for some real in depth coverage will undoubtedly be left wanting.


The Video

The disc looks great on DVD, as the archival footage is cleaned up and as crisp as possible. The documentary is presented in Fullscreen with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

The Audio

The disc also has a nice audio track, with the Dolby Digital soundtrack highlighting the hard hits and fantastic runs shown in the footage.

The Supplements

The Players – Where the disc actually excels is in its extras, where we get terrific looks at several players, including a 45 minute look at Jim Brown, as well as Featurettes on the careers of Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon, Doug Williams, and Marvin Lewis. These looks at players are incredibly detailed, really outdoing everything that is actually covered in the main documentary on this disc. We also get a nice Featurette called The New Breed, which explores players like Vince Young and Cordell Stewart. The real jewel of this entire disc is Jim Brown: Player of the Millenium, which has amazing interviews from players that played against and with the Hall of Famer. There’s an incredible moment from three awesome defensive players who each make confessionals on great hits that they made on Brown, only to wake up moments later after they had been ran over.

The Coaches and Front Office – This section of the extras also has some nice features, such as a roundtable discussion with African-American coaches Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin, Lovie Smith, and Jerry Reese. We also get Marvin Lewis –In His Own Words, which explores the career of the Cincinnati Bengal’s coach and what has made him so successful.

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for
The Leaders: Breaking the Racial Barriers in the NFL