TV Review: Jackie Robinson (2016)

Posted: June 12, 2016 in Documentary, TV
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jackie robinson

Part 1

Jackie Robinson (Jamie Foxx voiceover) was born in 1919, in Cairo Georgia.  In 1920, after his father left the family, his mother moved the family to Pasadena.  Jack’s brother Mack was a member of Jesse Owens relay team.  Jackie was also good in sports, basketball, football in high school.  He went to UCLA and became a four sport star. In his senior year, he met his future wife Rachel, but quit college just before graduating, to work in an integrated football league.  In the spring of 1942, Jackie was drafted and applied for officer candidate school.  He was initially rejected. But with Joe Lewis’ help, he was accepted, and became a second lieutenant. But in 1944, he was charged for insubordination for not moving to the back of an Army bus, and cursing a soldier.  He was found not guilty, but asked for and received an honorable discharge.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were hapless, owner Branch Rickey shook up the team got rid of high priced stars, and promised to integrate baseball.  Toward that end, he asked scouts to scout the Negro Leagues.  After the Army, he made the KC Monarchs, and a friend in the Army said that the Boston Red Sox were holding tryouts, nothing came of the tryouts with the Red Sox, but newspaper reporter Wendell Smith mentioned Jackie’s name to Dodgers scouts, and he was sent to the Dodgers Triple A system in Montreal.  He found living in Montreal easier than living in the US but still faced racism in places like Florida when he went on the road.  He won the Minor League World Series in 1946, and was called up to the Dodgers in 1947.  Dixie Walker a Dodger from Alabama circulated a petition around the clubhouse asking Dodger players not to play with Robinson, Branch Rickey and Leo Durocher quashed the petition, a rumored strike against Robinson by Major league ballplayers never materialized, and Robinson led the Dodgers to the World Series in 1947, while winning Rookie of the Year.

This was a thorough and comprehensive documentary of Jackie Robinson’s life and early years in baseball.  The producers (Ken Burns’ daughter Sarah, and her husband David McMahon along with Burns) go to great lengths to interview, baseball players, scouts and because Robinson’s impact went beyond sports, they also interviewed President and Mrs. Obama, and entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte.  They explain who Dodgers owner Branch Rickey was and his motives for integration, they were not all altruistic. It also goes into some depth about the friendship that developed between black newspaper reporter Wendell Smith and Jackie Robinson.  Smith became, promoter, friend and confidante to Robinson, and helped him get to the Dodgers, when he had all but given up.

Two things that struck me were how much Rachel and Jackie loved each other and how that bond help him through the tough times, and how virulent and overt racism was in the 1940’s not only in the South but also in California. Jackie Robinson actively fought back against this racism, and so it was an open question whether he could keep his mouth closed when taunted by fans, players and managers. He did stay quiet for two years.  Two of the most touching stories in Part 1 of this documentary are stories about an ordinary Brooklyn Dodgers fan and his parents, and news anchor Tom Brokaw and his father. Watch for them.

Part 2:

In 1949, Branch Rickey took the muzzle off of Jackie Robinson, and so he was free to argue with umpires and players, and so he did.  He also had one of his best years as a player in 1949.  Robinson started battling health issues like diabetes, but won a World Series in 1955 with the Dodgers.  In 1957, because of failing health and diminishing skill, Robinson retired, but before he could retire, the Dodgers traded him to the Giants.  He expected to be named manager of the Triple A Dodger team, but wasn’t.

Instead he became an entrepreneur, becoming a Vice President at Choc Full-o-Nuts in 1957.  In 1959, he started writing a wide-ranging column for the New York Post, where he wrote not only about sports, but also about politics.  In 1960, his political involvement deepened Robinson supported Richard Nixon over JFK, because he was disappointed in Kennedy’s tepid stance on Civil Rights.  In July 1962, Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but his life involved much more than baseball by that time. Robinson became a more vocal supporter of the Civil Rights movement, in August 1962, he flew to Albany Georgia at the request of Martin Luther King, Jr.  after churches there were burned down, in spite of death threats.  In 1963 he raised money for jailed protectors in Birmingham, and in August of that year. he and his family took part in the March on Washington. In 1964, he started working for Nelson Rockefeller, after the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater.  Robinson came back to his entrepreneurial roots, he founded Freedom Bank in Harlem in 1964 to provide low income people with loans and mortgages.

His busy post-baseball life led to tumultuousness at home.  His oldest son Jackie Jr. became involved in drugs, marijuana at first, and then heroin after a stint in Vietnam.  Jackie sent his son to rehab, and just when it seemed Jackie Jr. had turned a corner, tragedy struck.  Jackie died not long after his son’s tragedy, in 1972, of a heart attack, he was only 53.

This was the harder part of Jackie Robinson’s story to watch, because with every success, reality interrupted.  He won the MVP in 1949, but the fans started to turn on him, because he started pressing baseball for more black players.  Even after a few years of massive success in baseball he would still get death threats. He was hired at Chock Full O Nuts, but never hired as a baseball manager.  He looked for a house in Connecticut, but no one would show his family a house until Carly Simon’s mother stepped in. He supported Nixon early on, only to be ignored by him later. The increased radicalization within the Civil Rights movement, later in Robinson’s life, left him open to criticism of being out of touch with the rapidly changing black community.  And all the work to move Civil Rights forward took a toll on his home life. His son’s addiction, and subsequent rehab is heartbreaking to watch.  Jackie’s neglect of his own health is also heartbreaking to watch, he died at 53, but looked much older.

This documentary is an incredible record of a man, who never stopped trying to move himself and his country forward.  He was a strong believer in integration and non-violence.  His baseball career was legendary, but his life after baseball only made the legend grow.  Many thanks to the Burns family, and the Robinson family, for creating this intimate portrait of this very complex man.

Jackie Robinson: Another home run for Ken Burns

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