The Next Base: “Jackie Robinson” by Ken Burns
April 15, 2016 Leave a Comment
Baseball is a springboard for immortality. As a game, it has the capacity to create idols every summer. Among the scores of heroes enshrined in bronze at Cooperstown, one player personifies the century-and-a-half long symbiosis between baseball and the long, breaking arc of the nation’s history: Jackie Robinson.
The life and legacy of Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the star who broke Major League Baseball’s color line, is the focus of the new documentary by Ken Burns. The two-episode and nearly four-hour Jackie Robinson is an expansive biography of the historic ballplayer: his childhood, his athletic feats and career, and most poignantly, his family.
The film is just as much a history of the African American experience in the 20th century, and of how Robinson came to personify the victories, disappointments and lessons of civil rights struggles. Robinson’s life intersected with the broad sweep of 20th century African American history, including displacement wrought by the Great Migration, new expectations inspired by service in World War II, the struggle of the post-war Civil Rights Movement, and ongoing racism as experienced through redlining and cynical political strategies.
Of course, Burns serves the baseball scripture as well. Perhaps most iconic is the instrumental role of Branch Rickey in recruiting Robinson, and their discussions about how to respond to inevitable invective and bigotry on and off the field. Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers as number “42” on April 15, 1947, and would go on to have a Hall of Fame career. It’s all covered in exquisite detail for both history buffs and baseball fans, and is all valuable for better understanding the shifting racial currents in American society.
But the centerpiece of both episodes, and the heart of the entire documentary, is Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow. Now 93 years old, she is the primary and most prominent source for Jackie Robinson, and her recollections and insights immediately humanize a man who long ago passed into legendary status. The love and devotion between Jackie and Rachel defined both of their lives, and every moment she appears on the screen elevates the documentary.
Jackie Robinson might just be the quintessential Ken Burns creation. The filmmaker made public television history with The Civil War in 1990, and hit another grand slam in 1994 with Baseball. Both documentaries were multi-episode epics, covering the United States’ bloody conflict over slavery and the national pastime that traces its roots to the same era. Both focused on the experiences of African Americans and how struggles for their freedom and liberty define the national character. In fact, for this documentary, Burns shrewdly reuses interviews originally shot for Baseball more than two decades ago.
But other films from Burns also point the way towards this production. Released in 1982, his rookie documentary, Brooklyn Bridge, highlighted the borough’s connection to and relationship with the bigger city. And Burns’ 2005 release, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, traced the saga of the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson was an early sports celebrity superstar who reigned during the era spanning Plessy v. Ferguson and The Birth of a Nation.
Fitting its biographical focus, Jackie Robinson is also a family production. Like the 2012 collaboration, The Central Park Five, the film is co-directed by the Burns, his daughter, Sarah, and her husband, David McMahon. And like that film, Jackie Robinson also explores racial conflict, revealing that whatever progress is made achieving equal opportunities, the journey must continue by necessity.
In interviews about the documentary, Ken Burns has emphasized that Jackie Robinson is a timely look at one of baseball’s towering figures. Indeed, Burns has said Robinson is the most important person in the sport’s history, and stands out in the overall American story as well. At a time when obdurate racial disparities are taking on growing prominence in the national discussion, when statements and acts of racism continue to befoul the lives of too many people, and even when the number of black players in Major League Baseball has dropped precipitously in this century, the life of Jackie Robinson remains one worth knowing.