Airing over two nights on Monday and Tuesday, PBS’ Jackie Robinson doesn’t immediately sound inherently necessary. The story of the Brooklyn Dodgers star who broke baseball’s color barrier has been covered in several narrative films, and Robinson was a major figure in the sixth “inning” of Ken Burns’ Baseball, which premiered back in 1994.
With Burns returning to direct this four-hour doc, along with daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, certain pieces of the core story remain intact. You’ll still hear tales of four-sport UCLA star Robinson, pragmatic crusader and savvy businessman Branch Rickey and the myriad bigots and racists who tormented the athlete when he first arrived in the majors in 1947. In some cases, the tales are literally identical, because so many of the figures Burns spoke with for Baseball are no longer with us.
Jackie Robinson is segmented pretty cleanly. The first hour leads us through his birth in Georgia, his Great Migration upbringing in Pasadena, Calif., his college stardom and his military service, leading up to Rickey’s first interest and Robinson’s first spring training. The second hour goes through his initial season in the big leagues. That means that the opening night will be the material that’s most familiar to fans of baseball or fans of Baseball; some of the interviews with the late broadcast Red Barber, Negro Leagues star and consummate voice-of-record Buck O’Neil and scout Clyde Sukeforth were either featured in that earlier documentary or variations on those interviews. Whether you’ve seen those discussions before or not, they’re a glowing tribute to Burns’ methodology and depth of research and these are some of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever known — it’s never an imposition to revisit their words and recollections. You’ll also never go wrong with Burns’ consistent treasure trove of images and footage, carried along by a Wynton Marsalis score and Keith David’s resonant narration.
If the first night is largely about reaffirming the Jackie Robinson myth, you sense the direction the documentary is taking when it tackles the famous image of Pee-Wee Reese with his arm around Robinson, a moment that existed, but probably not as it has been memorialized. The second night, then, is about the shift in Robinson’s persona, the clash between the icon and the man. It’s the story that hasn’t been repeated as endlessly: what happened to Robinson after Rickey gave him permission to be himself and he started talking and fighting back; what happened to Robinson after he retired and became an outspoken and controversial figure in the Civil Rights Movement; what happened to his family.
It’s perhaps that last side that makes Jackie Robinson such a beautiful record, because while Robinson isn’t around to tell his story anymore — Jamie Foxx reads from Robinson’s writings — his wife Rachel is a remarkable 93 and her memories are both the spine of the new documentary and its heart. Rachel, who was featured in a slightly less central role in Baseball, is the most gifted of storytellers. It’s one thing to recount famous moments, but her stories have an entrancing ebb-and-flow and flawless punctuation. I rewatched Rachel chronicling the challenging trip to that first spring training, a journey that doubled as their honeymoon, several times, laughing and finding emotion in the same beats.
“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,” first lady Michelle Obama says, as her husband sits smiling and nodding by her side. It’s the sort of contention that sounds like a platitude, but Rachel and Jackie Robinson make it seem believable. There’s almost a temptation to wish this were a two-hour documentary titled Rachel Robinson or perhaps Rachel & Jackie Robinson, since this is a love story and a story of partnership at its best.
The second episode in particular also features strong contributions from Robinson’s children David and Sharon, as we get a better and better feeling for iconic figure as a person. Those insights make it possible to process discordant tidbits like Robinson’s support for Richard Nixon and Republican politicians, his public clashes with figures like Malcolm X and the estrangement from baseball that lasted decades. Freed from the need to repeat the known elements of Robinson’s legend, the filmmakers can position him within shifting ideas and ideals of African-American masculinity in a pivotal time in American history. As President Barack Obama puts it, Robinson “laid the foundation for America to see its black citizens as subjects and not just objects,” but with the times changing, he meant more than just one thing to America and was seen in more than one light.
So if you’re thinking that you’ve seen Baseball and you watched 42 and you aren’t sure there’s more you need to know about Jackie Robinson, the answer courtesy of Burns, Burns and McMahon is that there’s plenty more.
Airs: Monday, April 11, and Tuesday, April 12, at 9 p.m. ET/PT (PBS)