The short, mercurial, sometimes self-defeating life of professional soccer player Justin Fashanu is so packed with drama that “Forbidden Games,” Adam Darke and Jon Carey’s documentary about him, often feels like a narrative feature — one that engrosses even as its complex central figure defies full understanding. In 1990, Fashanu became the first pro footballer to come out as gay (nearly three decades later, few have joined him), but his legacy, not just as a talented athlete or a rainbow-flag-waving one, but as a prominent black player at a time when U.K. clubs remained barely integrated, is overshadowed by numerous factors, not least his suicide at age 37. This warts-and-all doc might well inspire someone to make a conventional biopic of Fashanu in the not-distant future.
Justin and younger brother John were born in the early 1960s in central London to a Nigerian father and Guyanese mother. When his dad returned to Africa, his mom decided she was too poor to keep all four of their children, sending the two boys to an orphanage — a perceived rejection from which Justin in particular never quite recovered. Fortunately both were adopted by a kindly older white couple in Norfolk, though being the only blacks in a minuscule rural village left its own scars. Soon, however, their athletic abilities made them stand out more positively. While not yet 20, Justin scored a stunning goal for Norwich in 1980 against top-ranked Liverpool, making him a national celebrity. The next year, he signed with Nottingham Forest, for £1 million.
Fashanu took to fame like a duck to water, indulging a penchant for flashy clothes, cars and the media spotlight. Alas, his on-field performance did not meet expectations — perhaps partly due to tensions stirred by that high salary and the gay rumors already swirling around him. His spotty record and injuries saw him bounce around from team to team in an increasingly desperate career that included stints with nearly 20 clubs as far-flung as Los Angeles and Hamilton, Ontario, over the next 16 years.
As his fortunes flagged, brother John’s rose, and what had once been an indivisible sibling bond turned antagonistic. John became one of his once-worshipped older brother’s pettiest critics, even as he took Justin’s compulsion for off-field celebrity media exposure to a new level. Though Justin still cut a dashing, charismatic figure in many respects, he was now branded the “loser” of the two, and his coming out — for money, from a tabloid newspaper — did not endear him to the more loutish soccer fans. Branded a “million-dollar misfit,” his poor judgment got him embroiled in various scandals, some of which he may have falsely associated himself with in his thirst for publicity. Yet notoriety was clearly not his aim in fleeing to England after being charged with molesting a 17-year-old in Maryland. He claimed the act was consensual (though his victim went on-camera to insist it was not). Fashanu’s 1998 suicide note cited fear of homophobically biased prosecution.
The documentary is a fascinating story of outsized highs and lows, as well as personalities, as showcased in fresh interviews and ample archival footage. If much remains elusive about Fashanu — not least the suggestion that he had a penchant for underage boys — that fault lies not with the filmmakers but with the subject himself, whose character juggled numerous contradictions and who was caught in more than a few public lies. In death he remains a magnetic figure, whether sympathetic or not.
The thorny tale is told in straightforward but tightly woven chronological form by the directors, with a polished assembly that makes this TV-ready sports bio material worthy of big-screen viewing.