(a.k.a. JOHNNIE GIBSON F.B.I. if you go by the VHS tape)
JOHNNIE MAE GIBSON: FBI is a TV movie directed by Bill Duke. It aired on CBS in October of 1986 against a World Series game. I found a New York Times review from the time lamenting that it was routine TV formula. Accurate, but thirtysome years later the routine TV formula of 1986 has a certain retro appeal.
It’s a premature biopic of a respected FBI agent (Lynn Whitfield, JAWS: THE REVENGE) who was still on active duty at the time. Only the fifth ever African-American female agent at the bureau, she was known for extreme cool under pressure in undercover assignments and a high arrest record, many from “old dog” cold cases they dumped off on her.
We see her rise from a childhood in rural Georgia, poor family, sick mother (Veronica Redd, The Young and the Restless), mean father (Henry G. Sanders, REBEL, CHILD’S PLAY 3, ROCKY BALBOA). One scene involves a white family offering them a Thanksgiving turkey, her father refusing it, and her getting it anyway and surprising the family with it. her dad throws a fit and knocks it onto the floor. So much is established in this scene: Johnnie’s fearlessness and insistence on doing her own thing, her lifetime of dealing with angry men, but also her dad’s attempt to instill self-reliance into her, and the idea that her willingness to engage with white people makes her an outlier.
She makes it to college and in the span of a few edits she’s introduced to a burly, handsome dude named Marvin (William Allen Young, FREEDOM ROAD, LOCK UP, DISTRICT 9), marries him, has a daughter named Tiffany (Mia Simon). This rapid, surface level rocketing through life events is also criticized in that review I mentioned, but again, it’s kinda fun in this type of movie. Spending the time to really understand her husband and their relationship and what their kid is like as a human being is one way to go. Acknowledging that this is a biographical summary just needed to set up who she will be later in life is another. Duke and screenwriter James G. Hirsch (one episode of The Incredible Hulk, two episodes of Starman) go for the second one.
Marriage is bliss until the not very credible scene when she puts on a police uniform to surprise Marvin with the information that this is her new job. It’s hard to believe this came out of the blue and that she didn’t know he’d be upset about it. His objection is part disillusionment with the system (“You’re a black woman, you can’t be a police officer!”), part chauvinism (he wants her to stay home).
And if he acts this way about becoming a cop just wait until she decides to go off to Quantico and become an FBI agent and then go live in Miami and go undercover to bust an ex-NFL star Adam Prentice (Richard Lawson, THE JERICHO MILE, STREETS OF FIRE) involved in smuggling machine guns.
As far as the danger and shit goes she can handle herself pretty good. Whatever institutional prejudices there may be go out the window when they need a black woman undercover, and when it comes up she’s ready to deliver. She’s convincing in character, she thinks fast, she can knock a gun out of a hand. But the relationships are hard. She has to pretend to be dating her partner T.C. (Howard E. Rollins Jr., Virgil Tibbs on the In the Heat of the Night TV series) and it’s weird. He seems to be attracted to her but brings her to meet his wife and kids, which she finds insulting. Then she also has to pretend to be into Adam, who thinks he’s trying to take her away from T.C., and she obviously does like him and he seems to be more noble than the other criminals. So some of her cohorts question her loyalties, which pisses her off because she’s gonna bust him no matter what. (But feel bad about it.) I like the way SPOILER he just stares at her when he finds out the truth. He’s heartbroken, but he doesn’t scream at her like they usually do in these stories. I think he’s kind of impressed by her.
Meanwhile Marvin brings Tiffany to visit occasionally and he’s always pissy when he sees her, but he does have kind of a point since they’re supposed to be married and she pretty much abandoned him for work and rarely sees her own daughter.
So it’s a complicated personal life. Luckily she does maintain a friendship with her roommate from FBI school, Ginny Talbot (Marta DuBois, Tales of the Gold Monkey), who taught her to put on makeup (she grew up a tomboy) and also to persevere through training (some big dude beat her up pretty bad in martial arts class because he didn’t think women belonged in the bureau – I’m surprised that dude never reappeared to get his comeuppance). It’s always a relief when Ginny is there to give her some camaraderie and drink wine and stuff.
It deals at least superficially with the difficulty of being accepted as a woman in law enforcement. It deals a little less with the challenges of being in the FBI when you’re from a community that often doesn’t trust them and knows they spied on Martin Luther King and shit. She does have to struggle with the idea of busting this guy who is seen as a pillar of the community and for the most part is very honorable. But she realizes that if this weapons deal goes down those machine guns will be used to kill people. And she’s very clear that that’s something she wants to stop. The real Johnnie spent much of her later career working to recruit more minorities in the bureau, and I’m sure she saw this TV movie as another way of doing that. Obviously she didn’t see it as selling out to the system like her husband seemed to in the movie, but as trying to make the system more representative of the people.
I wonder what the real Marvin thought of his portrayal, though? From what I’ve read I think she stayed with him, but he seems like a real drag in the movie.
The score by Billy Goldenberg (SCAVENGER HUNT) is kind of jazzy, a little on the smooth side, but just groovy enough to be kind of good. But this is not a very cinematic TV movie. It looks like there is a cheap DVD of it, but it felt right to be renting it on VHS. It has the stiff kind of ’80s action show action, and it definitely doesn’t have that Michael Mann type of attempt at style or authenticity. A big FBI raid is, like, a bunch of sixty year old guys wearing suits and ties, hiding behind a crate holding guns, talking on walkie talkies while criminals meet on a dock. Maybe part of why I found it compelling anyway is that you don’t see too many stories like this that centralize a black woman, and Whitfield makes a good lead. She would go on to appear in many other true stories: THE GEORGE MCKENNA STORY, A TRIUMPH OF THE HEART: THE RICKY BELL STORY, THICKER THAN BLOOD: THE LARRY MCLINDEN STORY, REDEMPTION: THE STAN TOOKIE WILLIAMS STORY. But the only ones where she’s the one whose story it is are THE JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY and DANGEROUS EVIDENCE: THE LORI JACKSON STORY, and I doubt she gets to wrestle anybody in either of those.
Duke would later become well known for playing agents and detectives and chiefs, but he does not appear in front of the camera here. At this point he’d acted in a bunch of TV, plus AMERICAN GIGOLO, and he was smack between two iconic Schwarzenegger pictures, COMMANDO (1985) and PREDATOR (1987). As a director he’d been doing TV episodes for several years (Falcon Crest, Dallas, Cagney & Lacey, Hunter, Hill Street Blues, Fame, etc.) Five years later he’d cash in all that journeyman experience to direct A RAGE IN HARLEM and then DEEP COVER.