Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon directed this magnificent documentary on Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the major leagues of baseball in our time. You do not need to be a fan of baseball to appreciate this film which is really about how the actions of two men, Branch Rickey who as General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers opened the door to Jackie in 1947 to play and the courage of Jackie Robinson to accept the opportunity presented to him in a highly prejudiced society opposed to integration of any sort. It’s a film that explores the era of the 1940s, 50s and 60s and what it was like for a Black person in the United States to live a seemingly normal life. One of the film’s stand out moments are the interviews with Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife who goes into great detail on what things were like for her husband. She explains that the prejudice she encountered in the North was far more pervasive and repressive in many ways, where things were not so clearly defined. The South had been dealing with all sorts of race issues for years and everything was out there in the open (ie. segregated water fountains, theatres, bathrooms), whereas in the North it existed in a kind of invisible form which in many ways was far harder to combat. Carly Simon (whose father, Richard L. Simon was the co-founder of Simon & Shuster) tells a story that when her mother, Andrea Heinemann Simon (herself a Civil Rights activist and singer) found out that the Robinsons, despite their wealth and fame were unable to purchase a home in tony Fairfield County in Connecticut because of their race, made a few calls to local Real Estate agents and made sure they were able to purchase the home of their dreams. The Simons were also great friends of the family ensuring them not only support but a warm welcome to the neighborhood.
Later in Jackie’s life when he retired from baseball and entered business life in New York, he became a fierce proponent of the Civil Rights movement (something he always was), marching right along side Dr. Martin Luther King in some situations that were actually quite dangerous for him to be in. He also was suffering from diabetes and it had a tremendously negative affect on his life. Many of the treatments and medicines available today for diabetics simply did not exist at that time because they had not been invented yet. Also, Jackie was a sports icon to not only Black Americans but to everyone and his political actions concerning Civil Rights angered many of his fans who felt he should only be remembered as a sport’s star. He was also a widely read newspaper columnist and while diabetes slowly crippled his body he struggled near the end of his life to stay relevant as a new generation of civil rights activists took a more militant approach to the movement. This is a magnificent piece of filmmaking and one of Ken Burns’ best documentaries, right up there with THE CIVIL WAR and THE WAR.
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