Jackie Robinson (2016)

Directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon
Written by Sarah Burns & David McMahon

Jackie Robinson is not just a baseball hero, or a black hero. Jackie Robinson is an American hero and anyone who thinks otherwise is either unfamiliar with his story, or sorely mistaken. As a huge fan of both baseball and history, Jackie Robinson’s story is fairly familiar to me, having even recently rewatched both the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, starring Jackie himself, and the 2013 film 42, which both put a Hollywood spin on Jackie’s story. As part of the baseball marathon in which I encountered both those films, I am also watching documentarian Ken Burns’ Baseball, an exhaustive history of America’s past time as told through 10 parts, or innings. Like Jackie, anyone familiar with Ken Burns also know his style is all his own, encompassing an all inclusive narrative which creates an entertaining history lecture with some of the subject’s most brilliant minds.

For his film Jackie Robinson, which was co-directed and written by his daughter Sarah Burns and collaborator David McMahon, Ken Burns focuses on subjects such as Jackie’s wife Rachel, his son David, his daughter Sharon, historian Gerald Early, and the First Couple, Barack and Michelle Obama, among many other contributors. Told in two, two hour parts, the film spans Jackie’s childhood in Pasadena, his time as All-American multi-sport star at UCLA, his time in the military, Negro Leagues, his historically important entry into the Major Leagues, and finally his political involvement after his time as a ballplayer. Just as with his previous films, Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson is a comprehensive history of the man, his story and accomplishments, and his impact on America.

To prove just how comprehensive this documentary manages to be, the film covers a number of things I had not known about the man, which helps to paint a fuller picture of who he was as a man, how he came to cope with the abuse taken while making history with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his time after the game. For most of us, Jackie Robinson’s story begins and ends with his time with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as that is clearly his most notable story (as evidenced by it being the subject of both fiction films mentioned before), but Burns does as only Burns can do by including even the most basic of details about Robinson’s life with the film in order to complete the picture. Part one of the film, which focuses on Robinson’s life up to the point that he breaks the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947, ends up being the tighter, more entertaining section of the film, mostly due to the fact it includes the familiar story, which is chock full of natural drama that his later life seems to lack.

In both parts, the most compelling moments are often when Jackie’s wife Rachel is on screen, speaking eloquently, lovingly and quite frankly about her late husband. One particular line in which Rachel describes the feeling of Jackie’s warm embrace will stick with me for quite some time as it is the most true, genuine and raw moment captured in all of the interviews. Rachel commands the camera whenever she graces it, and it goes a long way to show how romantic their relationship was, how great a friendship can be between husband and wife, and just how crucial her support was for Jackie’s historic 1947 season. It took them as a team in order to make history, and it’s nothing short of remarkable what they were able to accomplish and withstand. Burns highlights Rachel’s importance, as to not let viewers forget Jackie was not alone in his endeavor.

However, the film does very little to indicate how soon other black players were put through this ringer. Larry Doby, for instance, was not mentioned in the film, but also broke the color line in the American League with the Cleveland Indians just a few months after Jackie did the same with the Dodgers. This is not to say Jackie was any less of an American hero or important figure in American sports and social history, but that he was not alone, or the only one we should celebrate. Jackie was a marvel, afterall. He belongs in the argument over who the best all around American athlete in history may have been, with his prowess in so many sports, and Hall of Fame baseball career. The film may lose steam on its final legs in the post-baseball years of Jackie Robinson’s life, but there is enough drama and compelling conversations to be had about the life of Jackie Robinson that this four hour documentary still serves as a wonderful document of a wonderful man’s life.

*** – Very Good

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