Given Ken Burns’ devotion to history – and the way key aspects of it intersect on various fronts – few topics could be better suited to his talents and passion than “Jackie Robinson,” a four-hour PBS documentary produced in conjunction with Major League Baseball. Yet while the Dodger star’s career brings together sports, race and politics, it is also a tremendous love story, as well as a tragedy, as illness shortened the life of a man widely heralded as one of the greatest athletes and civil-rights advocates of all time.
As a student of the civil-rights movement and the producer of “Baseball,” Burns, working with Sarah Burns and David McMahon, is an ideal choice to tell Robinson’s story, astutely timed to the start of the new baseball season. And what emerges is a portrait of a proud and complicated figure, a man who might have famously suppressed his temper in the face of indignities when he integrated professional baseball, but who didn’t sit idly by after his playing days, having “purchased the right to speak his mind, many times over,” as President Obama, one of those interviewed about Robinson’s legacy, puts it.
The documentary also features an extensive interview with Robinson’s widow, Rachel, who was very much his partner in every aspect of life and speaks with absolute clarity – and considerable warmth – nearly 35 years after her husband’s death at the age of 53, days after throwing out the first pitch at the 1972 World Series.
One needn’t be a particular fan of baseball to be familiar with the broad strokes of Robinson’s story. An exceptional athlete at UCLA who, it’s noted, could have gone on to star in multiple sports, he was chosen by Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who saw in him not just the talent but the character and temperament to weather becoming the first African-American to play in the Major League, signing him in 1945 and promoting him to the big leagues in 1947. The slights and abuse came not just from opponents, it’s worth noting, but from his own teammates (more than a third of the league’s players hailed from former Confederate states), some of whom demanded to be traded when Robinson was brought on board.
Described by one writer as “the loneliest man I’ve ever seen in sports,” Robinson was able to gain satisfaction – and a measure of revenge – through the success the Dodgers enjoyed with him in the lineup. “One way of fighting back is to do well … and to have his team win,” Rachel says.
Not surprisingly, the filmmakers provide bountiful footage of Robinson’s on-field exploits, from famously stealing home plate in the 1955 World Series to color video of him in the minor leagues playing for the Montreal Royals. But as is characteristic of Burns projects, there are also efforts to provide a wider contextual lens, such as a breakdown of the socioeconomic and cultural conditions in Brooklyn when Robinson began his career; and fascinating tidbits, like the fact that Robinson was court-martialed for refusing an order to sit in the back of a bus while serving in the military in 1944, more than a decade before Rosa Parks’ similar action triggered the Montgomery bus boycott.
The second part of the documentary also incorporates a detailed look at Robinson’s life after baseball, which included his involvement in pressing for civil rights (Harry Belafonte calls him “one of the most powerful voices we had”), writing a newspaper column and participating in the March on Washington. Nevertheless, he surprised many by deciding to support Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign, having been unimpressed by a meeting with John F. Kennedy.
With Keith David again serving as narrator, and Jamie Foxx providing Robinson’s voice reading correspondence and from his autobiography, “Jackie Robinson” exudes class – unhurried, stately, yet never dull. And while Burns’ formula hasn’t really changed over the past quarter-century, it can and should be savored even more compared with the tactics broadly employed in so much similar fare these days, including the often-unnecessary use of reenactments in an attempt to heighten drama.
Even at four hours, the documentary clearly left Burns and company with some hard choices to make in terms of doing justice to the impact and breadth of its subject’s accomplishments. Yet in terms of covering the bases and then some, “Jackie Robinson” touches them all.