Ken Burns Wipes Away the Myths to Reveal the Real Jackie Robinson in His New Documentary

Jackie Robinson
Courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s never too late to make amends, even 69 years after the fact. The Philadelphia City Council proved as much on March 31, when it unanimously passed a resolution honoring Jackie Robinson and officially apologizing for the treatment he endured while visiting in 1947, the year he broke Major League Baseball’s color line.

“Unfortunately in Philadelphia, Jackie Robinson experienced some of the most virulent racism and hate of his career,” Councilwoman Helen Gym said in introducing the action. “Our colleagues decided to introduce this resolution to celebrate Jackie Robinson.”


He has been celebrated many times before, most recently in 42, a 2013 movie starring Chadwick Boseman. Robinson is also honored each April 15—the anniversary of his major league debut—when every player and coach on every team wears his jersey number. And he certainly will be remembered fondly for generations to come, in recognition of his pioneering legacy that transcends sports.

But thanks to a new documentary from noted filmmaker Ken Burns, we’re able to see and appreciate Robinson in an entirely different light. This is no fictionalized script, such as in 42 or The Jackie Robinson Story, a 1950 movie starring the player as himself and Ruby Dee as his wife. In Jackie Robinson, a two-part film that airs Monday and Tuesday on PBS, Burns delivers the unvarnished truth that Hollywood treatments often whitewash.

He previously played myth buster on Robinson’s tale in Baseball, a 1994 Emmy Award-winning nine-part documentary that attracted 41.3 million viewers to become the most watched miniseries in public television history. Robinson was an integral figure throughout the series, with a section devoted to him in eight of the nine episodes (Burns would release a 10th episode in 2010). When Robinson’s widow, Rachel, asked Burns to do a stand-alone project on her husband, the filmmaker was eager to comply.

“I’m glad we did this,” Burns said in a recent phone interview. “Earlier films were made using long-held myths and superficialities that we were happy to liberate him from. If we can free him from the tyranny of mythology he has become, he can be used as inspiration today, no matter what’s going on, including Black Lives Matter.”


Robinson was a helluva ballplayer, earning the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 and being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. But he was a soldier for civil rights more than anything else, fighting for African Americans’ equal treatment before and after his baseball career. The sport simply gave him a platform and opportunity to make history.

“Jackie Robinson is without question the most important person in the history of baseball, America’s most important sport,” Burns told The Root. “I also suggest he’s the most important person in the history of sports and one of the greatest Americans. When Jackie joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Martin Luther King Jr. was in college. The military wasn’t integrated, there were no sit-ins and there was no Rosa Parks. He was a Freedom Rider before there were Freedom Rides, and we have to understand that issue.”

Through an impressive array of pictures, stirring original music by Wynton Marsalis and a lineup of interview subjects—including 93-year-old Rachel Robinson (who looks amazing and steals the show), President Barack Obama, Tom Brokaw, Harry Belafonte, historians, journalists and former teammates—Burns re-creates Robinson’s life and times in detailed fashion.


He came from a proud, strong family of sharecroppers who migrated from Cairo, Ga., to Pasadena, Calif., after his father deserted them in 1920. One of Robinson’s older brothers, Mack, finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Robinson attended UCLA and became the first athlete to letter in four varsity sports (baseball, basketball, football and track). He later entered the Army and faced a court-martial for refusing to move to the back of a bus. Robinson won the case and received an honorable discharge in 1944.

Various entities at the time were pressuring baseball to end its “gentleman’s agreement” and admit black players. That goes against a time-honored myth that Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey was operating largely on his own when he signed Robinson. The black press, the communist press, liberal Republican New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and New York City commissions were pushing baseball to integrate­—more than a decade before the civil rights movement began.


Robinson was supercompetitive and combative when necessary, traits he suppressed during his rookie season at Rickey’s request. Despite the taunts, death threats, unsportsmanlike conduct and demeaning treatment he encountered throughout that year, Robinson maintained his composure and had an incredible season. He became a huge drawing card when the Dodgers visited other cities. Time magazine put him on the cover, and he ranked among America’s most famous men—second to Bing Crosby and ahead of Frank Sinatra, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, according to one poll.

“My family rooted for the Dodgers because we liked pulling for the underdog,” Brokaw says in the film. “There’s no larger figure in my life than Jackie Robinson.”


Says Belafonte: “He became one of the most powerful voices we had.”

Robinson let more of his true personality show as his career progressed, causing him to lose favor among many who preferred docile Negroes. He entered corporate America after retiring in 1956 and became a frequent critic of segregation and racial injustice. Rachel Robinson was by his side at every step, and the film makes it easy to see the correlation between the Robinsons and the Obamas.


“It’s priceless to have the refuge of someone who loves you,” President Obama says in the film. First lady Michelle Obama adds that choosing a wife of Rachel’s character speaks volumes about the player’s character.

“In many ways, they [Obama and Robinson] acknowledged that they owe lots of their success to their wives,” Burns said.


The film, co-directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon, is about history more than sports, civil rights more than baseball, and African Americans more than the Dodgers. It should be required viewing, a reminder that despite everything we’ve faced and every opportunity to give up, some of us kept on fighting.

The struggle is real but not new. Robinson covered a lot of ground when he could have sat back and enjoyed the benefits he reaped. But as he says in the film, voiced by Jamie Fox: “Imagine if I had a room filled with trophies and citations, and a child asked what I did for blacks who were denied their rights and fighting for freedom. If I said I kept quiet, that I had been timid, I’d have to mark myself a total failure in the business of living.”


To Philadelphia and everyone else: Apology accepted.

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