Filmmaker Ken Burns was on the phone with me late last week, animated when discussing his new documentary about baseball great Jackie Robinson, which aired Monday and Tuesday on PBS to great acclaim and can be now seen online at vids.kvie.org.
Robinson seemed an odd choice for this kind of profile treatment given that the first African American player in the big leagues is already mythologized beyond human recognition. Robinson has been the subject of a recent feature film and other endless tributes. Robinson’s number 42 is already commemorated in every major-league park, and no big league player will ever officially don the number again out of respect for his sainted legacy.
You’ve heard the story: Robinson “broke the color line” in major-league baseball, which previously had barred American and Latin American blacks from competing in America’s pastime. He played at an elite level while enduring racist catcalls and segregated living conditions. He was a civil rights figure long before anyone had heard of Martin Luther King Jr. His success predated desegregated schools, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a more just American way of life.
The passage of time has effectively filed down some of the rough edges of Robinson’s experience. But “Jackie Robinson” – unspooling over four meticulous hours by Burns and his co-filmmakers – reminds us that we are not as evolved as we think we are.
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In reviving the details of Robinson’s life, and the specific injustices he endured, the film lends itself to making contemporary connections. The intolerance and violence whipped up by politicians like Donald Trump is nothing new. The violence against African Americans and other people of color is nothing new. The mass incarceration of black men is nothing new.
“Black Lives Matter, ‘stop and frisk,’ the Confederate flag, Ronald Reagan’s states’ rights speech,” Burns said. “This is an old story.”
Mainstream media was largely against Robinson in the beginning of his major-league baseball career. Major publications predicted he would fail when the Brooklyn Dodgers brought him up to the big leagues 69 years ago this week. He earned grudging respect in his first two years in the big show, but public opinion – mostly fed by newspapers – turned against him when Robinson began to push back against bigotry.
“Early on, they liked Jack,” said his widow, Rachel Robinson, in the film. “But the minute he began to defend himself,” that changed.
Burns’ film reminds us that Robinson’s true legacy was speaking clearly in the the face of intolerance. It shows him sag at times. It shows him being beaten down by constantly having to fight. But Robinson continued to champion equality when others remained silent.
With very few exceptions, Robinson’s rich white neighbors in suburban New York – a long way from the Jim Crow South – remained silent as Realtors initially blocked his path to purchasing a home. “Northern racism is more detrimental,” Rachel Robinson said. “The practices in the South were easier to understand or fight against rather than more subtle forms of racism.”
The truth is, many of Robinson’s white teammates never did accept him – nor did the mostly white sportswriters who barely noted his significance when he was alive. As a longtime sportswriter myself, I can tell you that the press box is not much more racially diverse now than it was in Robinson’s day. Many Latino players still get ignored. Whenever you hear modern sports-media types rail against dark-skinned athletes who “don’t play the game right” because they are demonstrative, it’s a modern take on an old slight hurled at Robinson.
There were many co-conspirators to bigotry in Robinson’s day – a fact that hasn’t changed. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, has led a procession of mainstream politicos endorsing Trump and his demagoguery. Closer to home, former Rep. Doug Ose endorsed the candidate who has disparaged women, Muslims, Mexicans and the disabled during his campaign.
I like Ose. I’ve broken bread with him. I was surprised when he endorsed Trump. But Ose’s act is hardly the most dismal reminder that not enough has changed since Robinson’s day. Burns began his film with a sequence showing a young Robinson being arrested in Pasadena for horsing around with an African American friend. Through sheer grace and luck, Robinson wasn’t killed in the many unnecessary encounters he had with police in his day.
What’s been one of the main stories dividing America in recent years? The African American youths killed in unnecessary encounters with police.
Robinson once said that he spoke up because he wanted his children to know that he had not remained silent amid the intolerance of his day. When I look in the mirror, can I say the same about myself? Yes and no. I’ve sometimes become worn down by the strident reaction, the hateful voicemails and emails and tweets you get whenever you write about race in America.
Burns said he made this film to “allow Jackie to talk to us” without “the shackles of mythology.”
Robinson was disillusioned by politicians of both major parties of his day, just as the 2016 campaign has seemed lacking to me when surveying candidates talking seriously about issues of race. In my own city, young people are killed routinely in Oak Park, Del Paso Heights and Meadowview while too many of us shrug.
If Robinson teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t have the luxury to be complacent because we haven’t come nearly as far as we think we have. The past is still present; all that matters is what we’re going to do about it.