A Review of Ken Burns’ Film on Jackie Robinson


A Ken Burns film about Jackie Robinson might seem inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful — or any less welcome. 

Spend just a few minutes with Jackie Robinson (PBS, Monday and Tuesday at 9 ET/PT, *** 1/2 out of four), a four-hour, two-part film from Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, and you can sense why the story of the man who broke baseball’s major-league color barrier would call out to our greatest film historian. There’s Robinson’s status as one of the greatest players in a sport that is one of Burns’ well-known passions. There’s the involvement of another Burns’ passion, jazz, in both the period music and the score, composed by Wynton Marsalis.

But beyond that, there’s race — that transcendent American subject that ran like an underground river through Burns’ masterpiece The Civil War and has carried through other Burns projects such as, well, Baseball and Jazz. In them, it wove in and out of the story. Here it stays in the forefront for a man whose status as the first black player in the modern major leagues made him a symbol, a touchstone and a target — attacked at some point in his life by whites and blacks, segregationists, integrationists and separatists alike.

And yet Burns and his co-producers are too good at their jobs to let Robinson get lost among the conflicts that swirled around him. This often-moving film is, at its heart, the life story of a man — and thanks to the gracious, essential participation of his widow, Rachel, we see a man who is made of flesh and blood, one half of a loving couple, and survived by a woman who seems as strong in her own quiet way as he was in his.

As a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. says, Robinson was “a freedom rider before freedom rides,” and this film traces the arc of that ride, from his birth in poverty and his contentious stint in the Army (he was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus), to his rise as a baseball legend and his sometimes controversial fight for civil rights. Facts of his life are interwoven with facts about ours as a society, some of which many would rather forget and all of which we should remember.

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Source: USA Today | Robert Bianco