Thursday, June 16, 2016

Jackie Robinson

JACKIE ROBINSON – made for TV              A-                   
USA  (240 mi)  2016  Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon         

A return to form for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose earlier film BASEBALL (1994) barely covered the life of Jackie Robinson, despite nearly 19-hours in 11 exhausting episodes, so this is a more extensive portrait, becoming analogous to an exploration of the changing race relations in America, as Robinson’s life is characterized not only by the abject horrors of the journey, but the ability to transcend prejudice and bigotry with an extraordinary talent on the playing field.  Targeted with death threats and venomous race-baiting, Robinson was living out the last vestiges of the Jim Crow era in the South where blacks could not stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as whites, so traveling with the team became a lonely and particularly isolating journey, where these laws were designed to humiliate and punish blacks for their supposed inferiority.  Robinson’s stature, however, transcends sports, as he almost single handedly dispelled the notion of black inferiority, where his Hall of Fame career spoke for itself, becoming a role model for courage and grace, both on and off the field as he opened doors, calling into question the senseless injustice of a segregated white and black America, becoming a good will ambassador for integration and equality, an advocate for Civil Rights, where his life serves as a personal and professional inspiration, posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.  What’s particularly noteworthy in this film is the distinguished presence of Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s surviving widow, who at age 93 remains as sharp and alert as ever, as her own perceptions add an extraordinary dimension to the complexities of her husband’s life, as she shared most all of these moments with him along the way.  First Lady Michelle Obama notes in the film, while sitting alongside President Obama, “I think that’s a sign of his character that he chose a woman that was his equal.  I don’t think you would have had Jackie Robinson without Rachel.  To go back and have refuge with someone who you know has your back, that’s priceless.”

Born Jack Roosevelt Robinson (where his middle name was in honor of the President who died just 25 days before he was born), the youngest son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves, Robinson was 14 months old in 1920 when his father abandoned the family, so his mother moved her five children from the small town of Cairo, Georgia to Pasadena, a wealthy suburb of Los Angeles, where she found work as a maid.  Moving to an all-white neighborhood, the family faced constant harassment, including burned crosses on their front yard, but they refused to move.  The neighborhood pool was for whites only, where blacks, Asian, and Latino kids could use it once a week on “International Day,” where the pool was drained and scrubbed cleaned afterwards before opening again the next day for the exclusive use of whites.  Robinson learned early on that athletic success did not guarantee acceptance in American society, as his older brother Mack was an exceptional athlete and a track standout, earning a Silver Medal in the 200 meters at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, finishing just 0.4 seconds behind Jessie Owens, yet the only job he could find afterwards was as a street sweeper and ditch digger, despite having a college education.  Jackie attended Pasadena Junior College, playing alongside mostly white athletes, before transferring to UCLA, becoming the school’s first varsity athlete to earn letters in four sports, football, basketball, baseball, and track, winning the national title in the long jump at the 1940 NCAA Men's Track and Field Championships.  Ironically, baseball was Robinson’s “worst sport” at UCLA, hitting only .097 in his only season, although he went 4-for-4 in his first game and stole home twice.  Twice he led the Pacific Coast League in scoring in basketball, while he was such a threat to score in football, one of only four blacks on the team, that a rival coach from Oregon claimed, “I guess you’ve got to have a mechanized cavalry unit to stop this guy.”  He was a football All-American and, along with Jim Thorpe, a contender for the greatest all-around athlete in American history.  Robinson left school in 1941 once his baseball eligibility ran out, without graduating, against the wishes of his future wife, Rachel Isum, who he met as an entering freshman when he was a senior.  

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Robinson was drafted and applied for Officer Candidate School in Fort Riley, Kansas, where blacks were routinely rejected at the time until the intervention of Heavyweight Boxing champion Joe Louis, who was also stationed there, eventually led to his acceptance, quickly leading to a personal friendship between the two men.  Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943, became engaged with Rachel shortly afterwards, and was reassigned to Fort Hood in Texas.  It was there that a white Army bus driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of a military bus, which he refused, more than a decade before Rosa Parks refused a similar request in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, which led to his arrest and a recommended court-martial, adding on additional charges, including insubordination and public drunkenness, though Robinson did not drink.  Robinson, who described himself as “the kind of Negro who isn’t going to beg for anything,” was eventually acquitted of all charges.  The court proceedings, however, kept him stateside, while the unit he was assigned to, the 761st "Black Panthers" Tank Battalion, was the first black tank unit sent into combat during the war.  As most of the military training facilities were located in the Deep South, the black trainees were forced to train over several years, while whites were being sent overseas after just a few months, making them subject to hostile acts of violent racism, including beatings and even murder.  Rachel graduated from UCLA in 1945 with a degree in nursing and the couple was married a year later, a year before he broke into the big leagues, as he was instead playing baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, offered an obligatory tryout with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, which was largely a political show to appease black newspapers and desegregationists, with no intentions of ever giving him a shot, as he was routinely subjected to racial taunts throughout.  The Red Sox were actually the last team in Major League Baseball to sign a black player in 1959.  While there were other black players with bigger names, like Josh Gibson and Satchel Page, it was Robinson who was selected, largely for how solidly grounded he was with a stable marriage.  After a lengthy discussion with Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodger President and General Manager, who “was looking for a soldier,” according to Rachel, where he famously lays down the law, explaining the turn-the-other-cheek scenario in the first few years requiring Robinson not to respond to the racial animosity that would inevitably come his way, telling him “I want a ball player with guts enough not to fight back,” Robinson was assigned to the Montreal Royals as the first black player in the Brooklyn Dodger farm club of the International Leagues, where he led the league with a .349 batting average while also being named the Most Valuable Player.

Rachel Robinson recounts the ordeal of reporting to Jackie’s first spring training in Daytona, Florida just two weeks after their wedding, where the trip amounted to their honeymoon, flying from Los Angeles to New Orleans, where they were bumped off their connecting flight to make room for white passengers, leaving them stranded at the New Orleans airport where none of the restaurants would serve them.  Anticipating this, Rickey met them there offering a bucket of fried chicken, which they graciously accepted, making it last throughout their ordeal.  Eventually taking a flight to Pensacola, Florida, with a connecting flight to nearby Jacksonville, they were ordered off the plane to make room for two white passengers.  With little recourse, they boarded a bus for Jacksonville, where the driver, calling him by the racial slur “boy,” ordered them to move to the back of the bus, as the front seats reclined, but not in the rear.  After a long and arduous journey through a part of the country where blacks who challenged discrimination were often jailed, beaten, or murdered, with six blacks lynched in 1946 (Lynching Statistics), and more than 20 others were rescued from angry mobs, they finally made it to Daytona Beach, where Robinson was so angered and humiliated that he was ready to quit.  Only after talking to journalists Wendell Smith and Billy Rowe from The Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper avidly following his story, was he convinced that he had to endure these indignities so others after him would have opportunities that were closed to him now.  Robinson, the only player allowed to bring his wife, was not allowed to stay with his teammates in the same hotel, so instead the newlyweds stayed in the home of a pharmacist and influential black politician, Joe Harris, known as the “Negro Mayor of Daytona Beach.”  Making matters worse, only Daytona Beach allowed him to play on the field, and even there he received death threats, while in nearby towns, the Sanford police chief threatened to close the facilities if Robinson appeared, and in Jacksonville the team arrived only to find the stadium padlocked.  During his time in the Negro Leagues, Robinson displayed a defiant spirit, sitting at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworths where he would not move until he was served, refusing to sit in the balcony at movie theaters, the designated area for blacks, while also refusing to buy gas from gas stations that prohibited blacks from using the rest room facilities.  Of interest, in the same year of 1946, Robinson’s backfield teammate at UCLA, Kenny Washington, became the first black player to sign a contract with the NFL in the modern (postwar) era.  The following year, just days before the start of the season, Robinson was called up to the major leagues at the relatively advanced age of 28, starting at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, making his major league debut at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947 before a crowd of 26,000 spectators, which included 14,000 especially excited black fans.  50 years later, the city of Sanford issued a public apology to Jackie Robinson and proclaimed that day Jackie Robinson Day.  Major League Baseball followed suit officially retiring his number on April 15, 1997, adopting a tradition of Jackie Robinson Day in 2004 where baseball celebrates his legacy every year on April 15th, a day many players elect to wear number 42 in his honor.  The last player to wear the number 42 year-round was New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, an All-Star Panamanian pitcher who retired after the 2013 season.    

Early in his career Armed Forces veteran Robinson was called upon to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1949 as a stark contrast to singer and black activist Paul Robeson’s claim that black Americans wouldn’t fight for their country, where he was largely duped by reactionary conservative politicians to undermine a man with a huge black following in Robeson, leading to his eventual blacklisting, this at a time when Robinson was still not allowed to shower with his teammates, forced to accept a locker off to the side in the corner of the clubhouse.   But others coming up after him looked to Robinson with hope, thinking now they might get a chance, where the weight of carrying an entire race on one man’s shoulders is never really fathomable to the rest of us, where he certainly felt the weight, according to Rachel, as “He knew if he failed that social progress was going to get set back.”  Described by New York Post sports journalist Jimmy Cannon as “the loneliest man I’ve ever seen in sports,” the only way he could fight back was to do well on the field and help his team win, something he did brilliantly throughout his storied career.  As President Obama notes in the film, “Jackie Robinson laid the foundation for America to see its black citizens as subjects and not just objects.  It meant that there were 6, 7, and 8-year-old boys who suddenly thought a black man was a hero.”  While there is famous footage of Robinson at age 36 stealing home in the 1955 World Series, there is also a considerable post career look at his life after baseball, where he served on the board of the NAACP, supported Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential campaign, as he attended the 1960 Democratic National Convention, where he heard reports that Kennedy was serious about civil rights, but after seeing him prominently sit arch-segregationist Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus on stage with him, Robinson walked out in disgust, but he later praised Kennedy for the action he took on civil rights, and was disappointed and angered by the conservative Republican opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, eventually becoming a voice for black economic progress, but had his run-ins with Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and other black activists that felt he was out of touch with the movement, calling him an “Uncle Tom.”  A lifelong Republican because the Democratic Party’s Dixiecrat wing ran his family out of Georgia, he became one of six national directors for the unsuccessful 1964 Presidential campaign of Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller in New York, leaving the Republican Party convention completely demoralized when the nominee chosen was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, where Robinson witnessed firsthand, “out of thirteen hundred delegates, 15 were black, and of those 15, one had his credentials revoked and another had cigarettes put out on him by Goldwater supporters,” claiming in his 1972 biography I Never Had It Made that he now had “a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany,” eventually switching parties and supporting Hubert Humphrey against Nixon in 1968.  According to director Ken Burns, “Robinson was there in 1960 and 1964 when the two parties switched sides on the Southern white vote, and that’s a huge moment in American history.  He witnessed it firsthand.”

With Keith David delivering the narration, and Jamie Foxx reading from Robinson’s letters or columns, we get a fuller picture of just what drove the man, as he continued to fight against racism and rail against inequality well after his career was over, where he worked as a business executive, the first black to serve as vice president of a major American corporation, helped found a minority-owned bank, wrote a regular newspaper column, and was politically involved.  Delving more into his family history and the relationship with his wife and children, eventually buying a house in Connecticut, we hear the voices of his now grown daughter Sharon and his son David as they reveal a deep sense of anguish felt by their father at his inability to connect with the emotionally distant Jackie Robinson Jr. who had a history of drug abuse, yet was well on his way to an apparent recovery before a car accident took his life at the age of 24, where there is an unseen backside exposed like never before, making him all the more vulnerable and human, as his life is anything but perfect or heroic.  Even as a player, Robinson didn’t always remain quietly passive, becoming more aggressively argumentative after his first few years, challenging umpires and opposing players, where his innate personality opened up, but his outspokenness drew the ire of once-adoring fans and beat writers who preferred his passivity and accused him of being “uppity” or ungrateful, where his own black teammate Roy Campanella felt his combativeness on the field was often divisive and hurt the team.  “Without that anger, you don’t get Jackie Robinson,” suggests sportswriter Howard Bryant, while according to Rachel, “He was not an angry black man.  He was an athlete who wanted to win.”  Robinson, who spent his entire Major League career (1947 to 1956) with the Dodgers, was voted Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949, when he won the National League batting title with a .342 batting average, becoming an All-Star for six consecutive seasons beginning in 1949, receiving more votes that year than any player except Ted Williams.  With a .311 career batting average, he led the Dodgers to six pennants, helped win a World Series in 1955, and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.  While Brian Helgeland’s Hollywood movie 42 (2013) offers a glimpse into the racism and discrimination that Robinson encountered, even from his own teammates, during his Major League career where more than a third of the league’s players at that time hailed from former Confederate states, this film offers a much more extensive portrait behind the scenes of a man who endured the neverending assault of racial attacks to lay the groundwork for the acceptance of blacks in America, fighting tirelessly for more black managers and executives in the game of baseball, where Martin Luther King Jr. called Robinson “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides,” eventually becoming an active spokesperson and fundraiser in the Civil Rights movement, joining King at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the March on Washington in 1963 attended by 250,000 people hearing King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.  He’s a man that helped blacks believe that things they could not imagine were now possible, where Robinson took the hateful insults, racial slurs, death threats and abuse and made it just a little bit easier for the next person of color to become the “first” or second in their school or workplace.  Again, according to Burns, explaining his overriding interest in making the film, “Jackie Robinson is the apostle of our better selves and is the apostle of the better angels of our nation.”

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