In spring 1999 while working as a magazine editor in New York and Atlanta, Keith Dunavant traveled to Alabama to do a feature story on Wilbur Jackson, the first African-American to sign a football scholarship with the University of Alabama.
Jackson told Dunavant an emotional story about returning to Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus many years after college. Dunavant knew right then it would make a great documentary film.
He stored the idea away and continued his career as a sports author and college football historian.
He went on to publish the Bear Bryant biography, “Coach,” plus “The Missing Ring” about the 1966 Alabama football team being denied a national championship despite going undefeated, and other football-themed books.
Several years later in 2005, Dunavant discovered the story of Danny Treadwell, who in 1966 became the first African-American to play in the Alabama state high school basketball tournament — held at Foster Auditorium.
Foster holds a troubled place in history as the site of Gov. George Wallace’s standoff with federal authorities in 1963. The courts had ruled that the university must admit African-American students, but Wallace had staked his political career on segregation.
Wallace vowed to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent black students from entering the university. And he did, sort of.
Though the standoff was symbolic, the iconic image of Wallace blocking the doors of Foster Auditorium cast a shadow over race relations throughout the state, and arguably the entire South. It forever linked the auditorium with this painful part of Alabama’s history.
“Three Days at Foster” places these and other key events into the broader story of the integration of Alabama sports and realizes the vision Dunavant conceived back in 1999.
This moving and thoroughly researched documentary tells the stories of Jackson, Treadwell and other African-American athletes who became civil rights pioneers simply by playing the sports they loved.
Dunavant and his filmmaking collaborator, Jonathan Hickman, capture these pivotal moments dramatically and with unprecedented accuracy.
One of their goals, Dunavant said, was to go beyond the mythology surrounding the integration of Alabama athletics and tell the story more accurately.
For instance, Dunavant describes the symbolism of the 1970 game between the still all-white Crimson Tide and the integrated University of Southern California Trojans as “extremely powerful.” However, he says, “the mythology that has taken root around that game has really gotten out of hand.”
“The perception, even among a lot of Alabama fans, is that Sam Cunningham running up and down the field against Alabama that night was responsible for Alabama integrating. It’s just not true,” Dunavant says. “Wilbur Jackson was already on the team. He had been recruited the previous year and was sitting in the stands that night with some of his teammates because he was a freshman, and freshman were still ineligible in 1970.”
The project was also quite personal for Dunavant. Jackson was one of Dunavant’s boyhood heroes and “a transcendent figure” for his generation.
“When we were kids out in the yard playing football and choosing up who to be, a lot of us were choosing to be black players, and that reflects something deeper” than just sports, he said.
“Three Days at Foster” received a standing ovation at the Birmingham Sidewalk Film Festival. It has also been chosen as an official selection by the All Sports Los Angeles Film Festival, where it will play in November.
Like an increasing number of independent filmmakers, Dunavant and his crew have chosen to distribute the film on home video while it is on the festival circuit. So the film is currently available through the official website or Amazon.
“Three Days at Foster” restores the historical place of the players it highlights, as well as the many people who supported them. It is essential viewing, whether you’re a sports fan or not.
Bottom line: Important, gripping, and timely documentary
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.