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Jackie Robinson (Blu-ray Review)

25 Apr, 2016 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.

It’s a challenge to think of anyone who’d be more appropriate to receive the Ken Burns treatment than the man who carved out a place for himself both before and after he integrated Major League Baseball — not that that alone wouldn’t be enough to make anyone who successfully did so in door-opening fashion an immortal. Even so, Burns admits on the bonus material of this home-viewing keeper that it took a little nudging for him to take on this comprehensive documentary by Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel, who has spent her years since Jackie’s premature death in 1972 making certain his torch keeps burning. Burns feared that too much of the material had been covered already in his 18-hour Baseball (which Jackie Robinson is making me ravenous to re-see), and his schedule was already jammed. A wiser mind prevailed, and, as usual, the mind belonged to Rachel, who, at 93, has written the textbook on how to age gracefully.

Burns’ latest is coming off one of the greatest achievements of his career: the 14-hour The Roosevelts, which was my favorite movie of any kind last year. When a friend of mine heard that this new documentary runs just four, he joshed, “Hell, Burns must have knocked that off in an afternoon.” But it’s obvious that anything Burns takes on will become a major project, and even in JR’s first half — which, as many have noted, covers, albeit necessarily, a lot of familiar material — there’s considerable illumination of the underreported (at least to baseball non-junkies) part of the story.

Right off, we get a sense of how tough Robinson’s mother must have been to move a large brood from a Georgia sharecropper’s existence to Pasadena, Calif., after the father had left the family (interviewed Rachel notes that no one ever figured out how she got the money). In 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, a soft-soap “B” that’s better than expected if you view it on those limited terms, mother Mallie is played by Louise Beavers, an actress who owned the store when it came to hired domestic roles (though she did get to play it straight to great effect in the original version of Imitation of Life). Judging strictly from her screen persona, it’s not easy to imagine Louise Beavers moving a large family to California all by herself. JR’s first half also goes into an act of defiance that long predated Rosa Park’s: Robinson’s refusal, as an army second lieutenant, to move to the back of an un-segregated bus — an incident that was the basis for the 1990 TV movie The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, with Andre Braugher in the lead.

In between came early local stardom (and racial slights in spite of this) — a streak capped by his becoming the first athlete to letter at UCLA in four sports: baseball, track, football and basketball. A case can be made, as someone states here, that Robinson was the greatest athlete America ever produced — but, in any event, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he didn’t even reach the Majors until he was 28. The man responsible (atop extended yeoman lobbying by the black press) was Brooklyn Dodgers owner and general manager Branch Rickey — initially for complicated reasons, though he eventually became a true believer. In a personal footnote so off the wall that I can’t avoid its mention, Branch Rickey’s granddaughter was in my high school class, and I later worked with the grandson of character actor Minor Watson, who played Rickey in The Jackie Robinson Story (Robinson played himself). What are the odds?

Rickey’s shrewd plan was to find someone tough enough to serve as the first pioneer: that is, taking the racial slurs (even from some teammates) over the first couple years. For Robinson, a well-known hothead with a cause, this was a calculated gamble. Once the muzzle came off in his third season (1949) — and now we’re into JR’s more revealing second half — he was among the league leaders in altercations. And of all the ways he could beat you (power, speed, sharp instincts, cheekiness), he was — as an interviewed sportswriter notes in either the documentary proper or the bonus section — an in-your-face bench jockey of the highest order. What he jeered at Giants manager Leo Durocher (recounted in the interview) almost had me falling off my sofa.

Robinson remained outspoken on more important matters after he retired — a move spurred by the Dodgers’ trade of him (and to the Giants; what were they thinking?) — and continued to be so on more important matters almost immediately thereafter. He was a vice president at successful coffee concern Chock Full O’Nuts at a time when it was an especially high-profile concern (Jackie Gleason gave it some free publicity when he called his own coffee cup “Chock Full O’Booze”). He wrote a newspaper column and helped start a bank geared to helping black customers secure loans. He also agitated at a time when the country needed (but didn’t appreciate) it, though he was far more of a Martin Luther King man and fell out with more militant civil rights leaders of the day, including Malcolm X (who had once idolized him). Even at home, he had to deal with daughter Sharon having a Huey Newton poster on her bedroom wall — though this paled next to a family situation where firstborn Jackie Jr. got hooked on drugs, seemed to be beating it and then suffered a fate that was beyond cruel for everyone. Robinson, who was so smart that he married Rachel, made at least two whopper mistakes in his life: supporting Richard Nixon in 1960 (though he came to his senses fairly quickly) and naming a son Jackie Jr.

All this — and the sense that the culture was passing him by in the Ali/Jim Brown era — had to have taken a toll: the degrading of athletic perfection into death at 53. Even as long ago as the early ’60s, I remember being taken aback over how portly Robinson had become while watching him out on the dance floor during some annual New Year’s Eve Guy Lombardo telecast (an example of my swinging early adolescence). Very prematurely gray, he just never looked good, though he must have been working up a storm. What the general public didn’t realize, though I suspect insiders did, is that he was diagnosed with heart problems and diabetes — and early on, at that.

I was at game two in Cincinnati of the 1972 World Series — the one where Oakland’s Joe Rudi made a classic 9th inning catch in left field (making this the only time I was ever happy to be sitting in left field seats). Before the game, Robinson spoke from a short speech that’s movingly excerpted here, and I remember how excited we felt to be getting this totally unexpected (for me, at least) privilege. A lot of people must have known or sensed the degree of his ill health (he was basically blind), but I didn’t. So his death nine days later was a sock in the gut. The specifics of Robinson’s sudden death at around seven in the morning make for a story that only Rachel could ever tell, and it’s a powerful conclusion to a portrait I doubt could be fuller unless Burns went the 14-hour route again. The bonus extras here are worth it, too — including interviews with key production personnel (Burns included) about how Jackie Robinson came to be. And again, as in so many other cases, spell that “R-a-c-h-e-l.”

About the Author: Mike Clark

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