Thursday, April 14, 2016

Jackie Robinson (Florentine Films, WETA, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Monday and Tuesday nights Charles and I watched a compelling two-part PBS documentary called Jackie Robinson, made by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon and an obvious outgrowth of Ken Burns’ 1994 miniseries Baseball. It’s yet another take on the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in the 20th century to play major league baseball (apparently some early teams in the 19th century had been integrated before Reconstruction finally ended and Jim Crow segregation hardened into racist orthodoxy and put strict limits, social as well as legal, on the ability of U.S. whites and Blacks to do just about anything together), which has already generated two narrative features: The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), in which Robinson played himself (surprisingly well for a non-professional actor — he certainly acquitted himself better than the wretched Joe Louis in his biopic Spirit of Youth in 1937!) and the young Ruby Dee played his wife Rachel, and 42, Brian Helgeland’s great biopic from 2013 which cast the little-known Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Nicole Beharie as Rachel. (42 ended up on my short list of baseball movies that are also great films, along with The Pride of the Yankees, Eight Men Out and Moneyball.) The first half of Jackie Robinson tells the story most people who’ve heard of Jackie Robinson at all know: he was born to tenant farmers in Georgia, named Jack Roosevelt Robinson after Theodore Roosevelt (certainly a more illustrious presidential namesake than McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters; or Chester Alan Arthur Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf!), and abandoned by his dad at age one.

It seems that Sasser, the plantation owner for whom Robinson, Sr. worked, yielded to Robinson’s entreaties to become a sharecropper instead of just a tenant farmer (it’s an indication of just how miserable the position of rural Southern Blacks was at the turn of the last century that he’d actually regard becoming a sharecropper as an improvement!), only once he started making more money Robinson père started hanging out on “the wrong side of town” and soon abandoned his family. Robinson’s mom Maddie decided to move herself, Robinson and his three older siblings (including fellow athlete Mac, who made the U.S. Olympic team in 1936 and silver-medaled in the 200-meter dash — the gold medalist was fellow African-American Jesse Owens — only to find when he got back that the only work he could get was as a street cleaner) to Los Angeles in the hope that there’d be more opportunities there. She was wrong in one way — the only work she could find was as a maid — but right in the sense that she was able to save enough money to buy a house in Pasadena (and, of course, have to deal with the usual racist shit from her neighbors) and send her kids to college. Jackie went to a community college and then to UCLA, where he lettered in four sports — baseball, football, basketball and track — until the war intervened. Jackie trained with an all-Black Army unit (the U.S. military wasn’t integrated until Harry Truman did it by executive order in 1948) but didn’t see combat because he got into an altercation with a white bus driver who wanted him to sit in the back of the bus where he “belonged.” He was actually court-martialed for this and, while he was acquitted, he was hurt enough by the experience that he asked for his discharge, and got it. In 1945 he signed to play professional baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, a team which so dominated Black baseball they were nicknamed “the Black Yankees,” but he only lasted there one season because — after he and two other Black players were auditioned by the Boston Red Sox, though none were signed and they really hadn’t expected to be — he was scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Dodgers were then run by club president Branch Rickey, who wanted Black players partly because he saw them as an unexploited talent pool that could bring him victories on the field, and partly because he thought the Dodgers could sell more tickets to Blacks if there were a few people who looked like them on the team. Oddly, the Burnses and McMahon don’t include the famous exchange between Robinson and Rickey that’s depicted in both The Jackie Robinson Story and 42 — in which Rickey explains that no matter how much Robinson is taunted, he’s not to retaliate; and when Robinson asks, “You mean you want someone without the guts to fight back,” Rickey says, “No, I want someone with the guts not to fight back!” In 1946 Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ minor-league farm club, and was well treated by the audiences in Montreal but got the full-bore racist treatment when he played on the road, especially in the U.S. South. The crap was all too predictable — hotel managers who suddenly discovered the reservations the team had made couldn’t be honored because they were full up; bus drivers and companies who were suddenly too busy to take the team’s business; restaurants who wouldn’t serve them — sometimes not even on a take-out basis; and gas stations who wouldn’t let Robinson use their restroom. Robinson also had to cope with racist threats from the Ku Klux Klan and free-lance vigilantes, and he also had to deal with the racism of his teammates, especially when he was called up by the Dodgers for his first major-league season in 1947. A number of the Dodgers’ white stars, including Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese, were native Southerners and brought all the racist prejudices they’d grown up with — at one point the Dodgers decided to give Reese a birthday celebration on the field, and in honor of his heritage they flew a Confederate flag, which predictably sent Robinson ballistic — and Snider demanded at the start of 1947 to be traded to another team rather than play with a Black teammate. Rickey handled him brilliantly; he told Snider that if he still felt that way by the deadline to make mid-season trades he would trade him, but by then Snider had seen what Robinson was doing to the Dodgers on the field and he didn’t want to leave a team that seemed headed for only its second pennant in its history. (Before Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers had made the World Series only once, in 1947; during the 10 years he was on the roster the Dodgers won the pennant six times and the Series once, in 1955.)

The first part of Jackie Robinson ends where the two fiction films about him do — in triumph at the end of the 1947 season — and the second part tells a deeper, richer and in some ways considerably sadder story. Robinson was sub-par for 1948 — overweight and, we get the impression, worn down by the racist taunting and still in the second year of his two-year promise to Branch Rickey to play the good-boy “credit to his race” and not fight back or make any public statements supporting civil rights — but rallied and in 1949 had the best year of his major-league career and was named Most Valuable Player in the National League — significant not only for the honor itself but because it was voted by sportswriters, many of whom had editorialized against Blacks in the major leagues. (One reason it took so long to integrate major-league baseball was the open, unabashed racism of the first Commissioner of Baseball, retired judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who’d been appointed to the job in the wake of the Black Sox scandal of 1919; after his death in 1944 the next Commissioner was moderate former governor Happy Chandler — and, though this isn’t mentioned in the movie, his willingness to preside over the integration of baseball cost him the chance to run for vice-president in 1968 as George Wallace’s running mate.) Robinson’s remaining career was plagued by illness (notably the diabetes and heart trouble that plagued him the rest of his life) and the loss of the speed that had made him one of the all-time base stealers in baseball history (he stole home plate 19 times and the show mentioned that he frequently used his speed to score runs without ever actually hitting the ball himself — he would get to first base on balls, largely because racist pitchers would throw at him instead of over the plate and so he’d walk; then he’d get himself into scoring position by stealing second and another Dodger would send him home on a base hit).

In 1957 the Dodgers dumped him in a trade onto their hated cross-town rivals, the New York Giants, and Robinson decided to hang it up and accepted an executive position with the Chock Full O’Nuts coffee company. By this time he was also taking more of an open role with the nascent civil rights movement and working with the NAACP (interestingly this show is one of the few modern sources that actually acknowledges what that name stands for — National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), though in 1960 he endorsed Richard Nixon for President over John F. Kennedy, apparently out of a personal affection for Nixon as well as the conviction that African-Americans should be part of both major U.S. political parties instead of diminishing their bargaining power by aligning themselves with just one. Indeed, historically African-Americans had voted overwhelmingly Republican when they were allowed to vote at all — their ancestral memories were of the Republicans as “the party of Lincoln” and the Democrats as the party of secession, “states’ rights,” segregation and the Klan — only that began to change. In 1960 Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Robinson regarded as a personal friend, was arrested and sentenced to four months on a chain gang — the assumption among civil-rights supporters was that he would not be allowed to leave that chain gang alive — and Nixon declined to call his wife Coretta on the ground that “that would be grandstanding.” Kennedy not only called Coretta, he sent Robert Kennedy to negotiate and get King’s sentence canceled — and Nixon later acknowledged that as one of the turning points of the 1960 campaign that had cost him the election. By 1964 the Democrats, under Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson, had passed through the sweeping 1964 Civil Rights Act — and Republican Barry Goldwater had won his party’s nomination (against Robinson’s preferred candidate, Nelson Rockefeller) and voted against the Civil Rights Act.

Robinson’s last years — he died relatively young, in 1972 at age 53 — were full of turmoil; he lost his column in the New York Post newspaper (they’d published it in their sports section but he’d covered mainstream politics and civil rights as well) over his endorsement of Nixon in 1960; he was attacked by young Black militants, including Malcolm X, as a sell-out and an “Uncle Tom”; and he had to deal with trauma at home, particularly his oldest son, Jackie Robinson, Jr., who was a young, undisciplined teen rebel, then joined the Army in hopes it would teach him discipline; then got sent to Viet Nam and suffered a major case of post-traumatic stress disorder when he was wounded on patrol and the two other servicemembers with him were killed; became addicted to marijuana and opium while “in country” and heroin when he returned home; finally cleaned up at the Daytop rehab center; went to work for Daytop after he completed his program — and was killed in 1971 in a car accident. (The toxicology report on his autopsy showed no signs of drugs in his system.) Jackie Robinson’s life story — all of it — is an inspiring one but also a saddening one, and the people the Burnses and McMahon chose to interview included his widow Rachel (though given her apparent age in the clips I think Rachel’s interview was done by Ken Burns for his 1994 project Baseball rather than more recently); their surviving kids Sharon and David; President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle (who, by coincidence, was born with the last name “Robinson”!); and various African-American writers, including Gerald Early (who stood out for the crispness and good sense of what he had to say about Robinson and his odd but important role in the civil-rights movement). Jackie Robinson is a fascinating program, and any doubts I might have had as to whether there was enough drama in Robinson’s life to merit a four-hour treatment were quickly dispelled — and fortunately the only person with whom the Burnses and McMahon used their standard approach of having actors read the words of a now-deceased person as soundtrack voiceovers was Robinson himself, who was voiced by Jamie Foxx (quite movingly, too). And yet like most biographies of prominent African-Americans of Robinson’s generation, it’s inspiring in depicting how far we’ve come and depressing in terms of its dramatization of the persistence of racism and how far we still have to go!