Directed by Alfred E. Green
The story of Jackie Robinson is an important American story. His is not just a baseball story, or even for that matter a black story. Robinson is an icon for all Americans on what it means to have courage and bravery in the face of adversity and inequality. Robinson broke the color line in baseball during the 1940s, but this feat had a much bigger cultural effect than just on the diamond. His actions, and ultimately his success on the field, made taking the leap from a segregated nation to integrated ever so slightly easier (there was nothing easy about the Civil Rights Movement). He was by no means the beginning or the end, but Jackie Robinson’s story is one that every American should know, whether they care about baseball or not.
Robinson was always a top flight athlete, featuring in many sports while at UCLA, but when push came to shove, baseball was not only his best sport, but also the most popular one in America at the time. What makes this film so unique is the actor who happens to play Jackie Robinson. It’s Jackie Robinson! I don’t think I can remember another time that such an important part in a “fiction” film was played by the real person themselves. We have seen ballplayers play themselves in this marathon already (Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, etc.), but for the lead role to be filled by a non-professional puts another spin on it altogether. Robinson turns out to not be that bad, for what I was expecting anyway. His performance is a little rough around the edges, but what he has going for him is how real and genuine the performance feels.
Ultimately, however, the film feels too flat and preachy for its own good. Alfred E. Green, whose name I had recognized from Baby Face, crafts a film that flies by one minute, covering Jackie’s whole childhood and adolescence in the blink of an eye, and then slows to a crawl the next, when we see Jackie’s baseball career blossom. This difference is jarring, and what I would have liked to have seen much more of is his childhood life. What values was he brought up on, what adversity did he face? The balance of the film feels off, and I imagine much of that can be contributed to what the film was intended for. It comes across as a commercial for Jackie Robinson, the type of profile you might see on a kids television program where the heroes of the children appear to provide a thrill of excitement. And I get that, but it doesn’t make for a great movie unfortunately.
The Jackie Robinson Story ends up getting by on the strength of the fact that it’s Jackie Robinson. Seeing the man himself out there performing both as an actor and a ball player is a thrill, even for a man in his late 20s. The story is one worth telling, as I have already mentioned, but knowing that it has already been done better (by a film later in this marathon) leaves The Jackie Robinson Story lacking. It just doesn’t really work as well as it should. Probably could have used a little more Ruby Dee.