Fox Sports acknowledged the elephant in the stadium — the depth of the nation’s political divide in the Trump era — with the “Ragged Old Flag” segment that led into the final half-hour before the Super Bowl kickoff.
The nearly five-minute short came together at the direction of Fox Sports president Eric Shanks, who was moved after attending the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in December.
After returning from the event in Hawaii, Shanks heard the 1974 Johnny Cash song on radio as he drove home from the airport. The recording, more a recitation than a musical number, tells the story of one man’s pride in the tattered flag that flies above a small-town courthouse.
The assignment to translate Shanks’ inspiration into a short film for the Super Bowl broadcast fell to Jennifer Pransky, a Fox Sports producer who directed the “Ragged Old Flag” short. She took her cues from the Cash song but she wanted to adapt the story to make it more relatable to a wider variety of viewers.
While the Cash recording tells the story of the narrator coming across an old man on a bench outside a courthouse, Pransky’s film offers a parallel story of an African-American woman, Amitiyah Hyman, encountering former Army special forces officer Nate Boyer. “Ragged Old Flag” pays tribute to the sacrifices made by military personnel and others throughout American history. Also featured in the film is Kirstie Ennis, a former Marine who lost a leg in a helicopter accident.
“I wanted to make it seem like even though we are coming from a different place we all live in the same country,” Pransky told Variety. “The one thing that isn’t different among us is the history of our country.”
The short film includes one long take depicting heroic acts on the battlefield starting with the war of 1812 through the siege at the Alamo through the Civil War. That material was shot in a warehouse in Van Nuys. As Cash’s baritone tells the “Ragged Old Flag” story, the film also includes images of war memorials for World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Pransky is proud of small touches in the film including the use of a Maryland courthouse that ranks as one of the oldest sites of jurisprudence in continuous use in the country.
The “Ragged Old Flag” film opens with Harry Belafonte and Olympic gymnastics star Simone Biles discussing the importance of the Constitution and the American flag serving as “a symbol of our unity,” as Belafonte states. Pransky chose Belafonte for his proud legacy as a civil rights activist, and because she suspected that many viewers would have to “Google him.” Biles, meanwhile, was a natural choice to appeal to contemporary audiences after she won four gold medals last year at the Rio summer games. The selection of Biles reveals Pransky’s bias as a former gymnast herself.
“She is the most dominant gymnast I’ve ever seen and she represented our country so well,” Pransky said of Biles.
Hyman was cast in the role strictly as an actress, but Pransky soon found out that she was also a pastor who took part in Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic civil rights march on Washington in 1963 and in Selma, Ala., in 1965. “It just seemed like the perfect coincidence for this project,” Pransky said.
To secure the rights to Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag,” Fox had to receive approvals from Sony Music and the Cash estate. The Cash estate only gave its blessing after reviewing the storyboard for the film. “We had wait very patiently to hear back from them after we’d submitted the whole creative plan,” she said. The version of the song approved for use in the spot included the spontaneous applause of those who were in the studio when Cash first laid down the track in the Watergate era, Pransky noted.
Pransky credits Shanks and Fox Sports for devoting five minutes of precious Super Bowl pre-game airtime to a purely non-commercial production that aims to make a statement to the sizable audience gathered for the NFL’s big game.
“We’re not talking about something sexy like Tom Brady, or using this time for commercials,” she said.