Friday, July 10, 2020
John Carey and Adam Darke | Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story
a natural man trapped by conventions
by Douglas Messerli
John Carey and Adam Darke (directors) Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story / 2017
For US citizens who are not involved in soccer, the name Justin Fashanu probably means very little, but for the British he was, and for some still is, a remarkable footballer who was the first black player to be offered a £1m fee to join the renowned Nottingham Forest team coached by the then highly respected Brian Clough.
Fashanu, who had long been recognized as a young footballer in the county where he had grown up, Norfolk, with his younger brother John, had become famous through the British telly when he scored a nearly impossible goal against Liverpool by kicking the ball into the left corner, slipping it deftly beyond the goalie’s reach, for which he won the 1980 BBC Goal of the Season Award.
Like dozens of other footballers, past and present, Fashanu, as Screendaily critic Fionnuala Halligan notes, “He was flash, and he liked to splash the cash, a charming, natural talent….” And like many another soccer star, once he reached the premier leagues, his scoring slowed disastrously and let to a serious knee injury that might have argued against him ever playing again. A trip to California, where he suffered through a great deal of reparative surgery and strenuous restorative exercise—the costs for which nearly bankrupted him—allowed him to begin replaying the game, but never with the aplomb of his early career.
Meanwhile, Justin’s beloved brother who was nearly fathered by Justin as he was growing up, far less talented that the elder, continued to work his way up the leagues, playing soccer with lesser teams, but becoming a solid scorer and came to be respected by all.
If Justin Fashanu’s story were nothing more than this, it might have represented yet another version of the often-told stories of figures such as Norman Maine in A Star Is Born or even Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, the latter of whose elder brother asked him to throw a boxing match (Fashanu began his life as an upcoming boxer), ruining his career and life.
Yet Fashanu’s career as a footballer is almost insignificant given all of the myriad other difficulties and he and his brother John faced. First of all, when their Nigerian father left their mother Pearl to return to Africa, leaving her in near poverty and unable to raise her large family, she left the two boys at Barnardos orphanage, while taking her other two children into her own home.
The young boys could never comprehend nor forgive her for that act, despite the fact that they eventually became foster children to what apparently was a loving and sustaining white family, Alf and Betty Jackson, in the small Norwich village of Shropham. Throughout their growing up Pearl attempted to explain to them that what she had to offer was far less that the life they were living; yet, even as she puts it, Justin never could accept it, the facts simply not registering in his brain.
As the only two black children for miles around, Justin and John, we can be certain, in those days of institutionalized racial hatred felt deeply isolated, to say the least, particularly living within a world that when Justin and his brother began to play soccer for Norwich filled with the air with racist epithets, along with banana skins they regularly tossed onto the playing field.
When his career began to nosedive, moreover, Justin became a born-again Christian, preaching and proselytizing, somewhat hypocritically we can perceive in hindsight, for a religion that were he not still a kind of celebrity, might otherwise have refused entry to their congregation. His sister, who claims she was not even a Christian, remembers Justin even trying to convert her.
Several times throughout this film, interviewees and even the directorial narrators, suggest that Justin was simply unknowable, a person who one day could be open and personable, but the next distant and inscrutable.
I am not at all surprised by this given the fact that underneath these numerous levels of pain and confused identity, Fashanu was also gay, not just passively or occasionally as a man who was abashedly attracted to other men, but as a kind of predator, who loved rent boys and even had affairs with an MP. Although Fashanu’s behavior was not generally known at that time, his fellow on-field players clearly knew he was gay, particularly such he often brought some of his younger lovers into the dressing rooms.
Much of his problem at Nottingham had to do with highly respected Clough, who was also homophobic and wouldn’t even let Fashanu work out with his fellow players. As the directors also make clear through their rewinds of many of the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s speeches, she and most of her British Empire were still highly homophobic, lashing out, particularly with the advent of the AIDS epidemic, about their hatred of all things homosexual, disparaging even the idea that proper people might allow a gay man even to enter their homes. The laws, moreover, which might be said to be slightly more open than the days that even being suspected of having gay sex might have landed you in jail, still weighted unequally homosexual and heterosexual behavior. The legal age permitted for heterosexuals was 16, while it was higher for gays, and sex with someone of 16 was still subject to years of imprisonment.
In 1990, desperate for money to pay off his debts, Justin Fashanu leaked the story to one of the most vicious of English tabloids, The Sun, that he was gay, making him the first British footballer then and still today who has ever openly admitted his homosexuality.
The terrible backlash which he might have foreseen, but claims he could not have imagined, made him later to backtrack some, claiming after that he was bisexual and, at one point, desperately in love with actress Julie Goodyear, while Justin also—in the terrible days when Prime Minister John Major was Leader of the Conservative Party at a time many of his party members were being accused of having homosexual affairs—made his own allegations against parliamentary members.
John, by this time an honored soccer play, refused to any longer even speak to his now endlessly beleaguered brother. Although Justin continued to hope that one day the two would again sit down to have a loving conversation, John reports on screen: “The closer the blood, the bloodier the situation.” Joining his voice with the millions of homophobes Justin had had to deal with, John added his taunts “I wouldn’t want to get changed in his vicinity.”
Even a little empathy might help us to realize why this man, who the directors summarize, was “never at peace.” With all the levels of hate leveled against him, by the nation, his fellow players, and even his brother, with rejection to his way of thinking by his father and mother, and now the many teams for which he had since played, it must have seemed like a lovely respite when he was invited to coach youth soccer in Maryland, where, as the police where later to remind him, “Homosexual acts are illegal.”
Fashanu, as a dear friend tells us, loved teaching, and seemed to be settling in quite nicely until a young 17-year old, having shared with others and evening of partying at Justin’s Ellicott City apartment, reported to police that he had been raped, after probably having been drugged by the ex-soccer player. The police visited Fashanu’s home, but did not arrest him. And the film suggests that the young man in question was well-known by his peers as a habitual liar, who made stories up so often that they literally ignored him.
Like director Roman Polanski—although under different circumstances, Polanski’s sexual partner having been only 13, while the boy Fashanu was said to have raped was 17—Justin fled back to England, where after visiting a local gay sauna, he was found dead on May 2, 1998 of strangulation in a small garage, evidently a result of suicide. He was only 37 years of age.
While John Carey and Adam Darke’s understated telling of this said tale asks as many questions—a bit disingenuously I suggest—than providing answers, may help us see through to some truths about Justin Fashanu, and is certainly a good starting place for an understanding of this complex athlete, I can only wish for something like a full tragic opera or sincere drama worthy of this man’s mostly innocent dilemmas. Not only were the “games,” both athletic and sexual forbidden this haunted man, but his entire life seemed forbidden by the prejudices of the time.
Los Angeles, July 10, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2010).