New documentary paints vivid portrait of Jackie

Filmmaker Burns details legend's life in phenomenal fashion

April 14th, 2016

Ken Burns' "Jackie Robinson" has taken a place at the head of the class in film versions of Robinson's story.

The two-part, four-hour documentary that aired on PBS this week, is a more thorough, more comprehensive, fuller portrait of Robinson than anything previously seen.

Burns, America's premier documentarian, has a built-in advantage, even beyond his filmmaker's skill and his reportorial diligence. He is creating a learned biography, not a commercial movie.

The timing of the airing of "Jackie Robinson" was close to ideal. On Friday, Major League Baseball will celebrate the 69th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball's racial barrier and changing the nature of American society in the process.

It is the second part of the documentary, Robinson's life after that epic racial breakthrough, in which Burns breaks new ground. Initially, Robinson heeded Branch Rickey's advice to stoically stand silent in the face of death threats, racist taunts and all sorts of abuse. But over time Robinson, true to his character and his courage, became outspoken on the topics of injustice and civil rights.

"Part of what I admire about Jackie Robinson," President Barack Obama said in the documentary, "is precisely his ability to approach baseball and those first two years of integration in ways that were contrary to his character -- or his fundamental sense of what was right and wrong -- in service of a larger cause.

"But that's not something that made sense for him to sustain. He had purchased the right to speak his mind many times over."

"Think of me as the kind of Negro who comes to the conclusion that he isn't going to beg for anything, that he will be reasonable, but he damned well is tired of being patient," Robinson said.

Among the Caucasian population, reactions to the more militant Robinson were, of course, mixed.

"Early on, they liked Jack, because he was being a good boy and he was doing what they thought he should do and keeping his mouth shut," Robinson's wife, Rachel, said in the documentary. "And the minute he decided to defend himself, they would call him uppity, they would call him a loudmouth to discredit him."

Nothing that is said or seen in this documentary will lessen Robinson's impact as a civil rights pioneer. But everybody makes mistakes, and Burns' work doesn't dismiss them.

Robinson's appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which he denounced the comments of Paul Robeson, would qualify as a misstep. Robeson was a noted singer and actor, as well as a prominent civil rights and political activist of a leftist bent. Robinson made the kind of comments about Robeson that were exactly what the most reactionary members of the committee would have hoped.

Robinson's support of Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy, can also be seen with the benefit of hindsight as a serious lapse in judgment.

The documentary makes these points, but also stresses that Robinson remained a tireless and forceful presence in the struggle for civil rights. He understood his prominence and he understood that he had a major role to play in the civil rights movement.

"Jack never talked about carrying the aspirations of our race as a burden," Rachel Robinson said. "He always talked about it as a kind of opportunity. He was proud, very proud when he succeeded in some way, and devastated when he didn't.

"But he knew that we had to have racial equality in America and if he didn't do his part and encourage others to do their part, no change would have taken place."

Another admirable part of Burns' work is its emphasis on the role played by Rachel Robinson. Jackie Robinson was, of course, the primary public figure, but the Robinson marriage was an equal partnership. Rachel Robinson, to this day, remains an iconic figure in the history of American civil rights.

There was heartbreak in Robinson's later years. His oldest son, who previously had problems with drug abuse, died in an auto accident. Robinson himself had deteriorating health due to diabetes and a heart condition and died in 1972 at age 53.

This was a life that knew both great triumph and profound tragedy. This documentary captures the entire spectrum.

The popular movie "42" was a suitable tribute to Robinson as filmed entertainment. But "Jackie Robinson" is a suitable tribute to Robinson as history.

Ken Burns is to be commended, again. His groundbreaking "The Civil War" documentary and his splendid "Baseball" documentary set a standard of both contextual accuracy and an ability to accurately sound precisely the right notes of place and time in American history. In this instance, Burns' riveting portrayal of Jackie Robinson gives this authentic American hero his due, in the best of times and the worst.