"Jackie Robinson is the most important figure in our nation’s most important game,” said Ken Burns. “He gave us our first lasting progress in civil rights since the Civil War and, ever since I finished my BASEBALL series in 1994, I’ve been eager to make a stand-alone film about the life of this courageous American. There was so much more to say not only about Robinson’s barrier-breaking moment in 1947, but about how his upbringing shaped his intolerance for any form of discrimination and how after his baseball career, he spoke out tirelessly against racial injustice, even after his star had begun to dim.”
Born in 1919 to tenant farmers in rural Georgia and raised in Pasadena, California, Robinson challenged institutional racism long before he integrated Major League Baseball. As a teenager, he demanded service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and refused to sit in the segregated balcony at a local movie theater. In 1944, while serving as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Robinson was arrested after he defied an order from a civilian bus driver to move to the back of a military bus. He was found not guilty.
In the spring of 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a major league contract. To help ensure the success of their endeavor, and protect the big league prospects of future African American players, Robinson agreed to ignore the threats and abuse that Rickey assured him he would face. That season, Robinson kept his word, remaining silent while he dazzled fans with his brilliant play and helped lead the Dodgers to the National League pennant. By the end of the year, he was the most famous black man in the country and in one poll, finished second only to Bing Crosby as the most popular American.
In 1949, Robinson began to speak out, challenging opposing players, arguing with umpires and speaking his mind to the press, and he played some of the best baseball of his career, winning the National League MVP award. Despite his accomplishments on the field, his outspokenness drew criticism across the league, from the press and even from black fans and players who worried he would set back the progress that African Americans had achieved in baseball. When he retired in 1956, many were happy to see him go.
After baseball, Robinson continued to use his immense fame to elevate the civil rights movement, voicing his views through a widely read newspaper column in the New York Post, raising money for the NAACP and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and campaigning vigorously for candidates he believed would work to improve the lives of African Americans. Meanwhile, in Stamford, Connecticut, the Robinson family faced the challenge of integrating schools, social clubs and Little League teams in their mostly white suburb, where residents and real estate agents had once tried to keep them from buying property.
“JACKIE ROBINSON” is also a warm portrait of a loving and devoted husband and father, featuring extensive interviews with Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and their surviving children, Sharon and David, who witnessed firsthand how resistant society could be to equality for African Americans, even their enormously popular father.
As the 1960s progressed, many African Americans grew frustrated with the slow pace of change in black neighborhoods, and new leaders began charting a more militant course for the civil rights movement. Robinson denounced their calls for progress by “any means necessary” and criticized them for rejecting integration. Some young African Americans accused Robinson of being out of touch — chiding him for his ties to Branch Rickey, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and other prominent whites — and sought new, more defiant cultural heroes such as Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown. But even as his celebrity waned and diabetes ravaged his body, Robinson continued to push for fair treatment and equal opportunities for all African Americans. After throwing out the first pitch before game two of the 1972 World Series, he told the crowd, and millions watching at home, that it was long past time for Major League Baseball to hire its first black manager. He died nine days later at just 53 years of age.
“Jackie Robinson,” Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, was “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
In addition to Rachel, Sharon and David Robinson, “JACKIE ROBINSON” features interviews with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama; former Dodgers teammates Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca; writers Howard Bryant and Gerald Early; Harry Belafonte; Tom Brokaw; and Carly Simon. Jamie Foxx is the voice of Jackie Robinson, reading excerpts from his newspaper columns, personal letters and autobiographies.
Funding is provided by Bank of America; Public Broadcasting Service; Corporation for Public Broadcasting; The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations; Dalio Foundation; Mr. Jack C. Taylor; and members of The Better Angels Society, including Jessica & John Fullerton and John & Catherine Debs.
The story of Jackie Robinson is something that's certainly been done before. From the recent motion picture 42 all the way back to 1950's 'The Jackie Robinson Story' in which the real Jackie played himself. Even Ken Burns, one of the co-directors of this documentary, examined Robinson in his acclaimed 'Baseball' series. So it's perhaps surprising that it took until now to get a really definitive look at Robinson's life – not just his baseball years, but both his upbringing and his post-baseball activities. That's exactly what 'Jackie Robinson' provides viewers.
Although, according to the bonus materials on this release, it was Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, who really pressed Ken Burns (and co-directors Sarah Burns and David McMahon) to create this documentary, Burns has no interest in either glamorizing or glorifying Robinson. He doesn't dodge showing some of Jackie's flaws, nor shy away from what he feels are some of the mistakes he made during his career in both baseball and as a civil rights activist after he left the field.
'Jackie Robinson' is also a chance to finally set the record straight on some myths about Robinson's story – perhaps first and foremost the idea that, when playing against a very racist crowd in Cincinnati, Robinson's teammate (and native Kentuckian) Pee Wee Reese came over during the game and put his arm around Jackie in order to show the crowd his support for him. The story is so legendary that a statue depicting the moment is actually erected outside of Brooklyn's minor league team's (the Cyclones) ballpark. The problem is the embrace most likely never happened. As the documentary points out, Reese would have had to come over all the way from his shortstop position (Robinson played first) to make the point, and there are no newspaper stories or reports from the time that ever mention such an event happening (those who believe the event did happen will point to the fact that the press wasn't exactly going out of their way to cover Robinson's on-field accomplishments, let alone events that were not necessarily game-related).
For those wondering if the presentation here follows the style of prior Ken Burns work, the answer is "yes." The documentary consists of a series of stills and archival video (most of it in black and white, but some in color) interspersed with comments from those who knew Jackie (including his widow and daughter), as well as some notable celebrities, including President Obama and the First Lady. The documentary is narrated by David Keith, with the words of Jackie Robinson (when his own audio isn't available) spoken by Jamie Foxx.
The best parts of 'Jackie Robinson' aren't necessarily the stuff we've all heard and seen before – like him breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball – but the stuff that we haven't heard much about...like the fact that he campaigned for Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy in 1960, then turned around and supported Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater in 1964. We also hear much about Jackie's oldest son, Jackie Jr., who had a horrible experience as a solider in Vietnam, returned to the States with a heroin addiction, only to get clean, start making a positive impact by speaking out about dangers of addiction,, then lose his life tragically in a car accident.
But perhaps the biggest thing we learn from 'Jackie Robinson' is that his widow, Rachel, is and was just as important an historical figure as Jackie. There are comments made by the participants here that there would be no Jackie without Rachel, and every bit of this presentation – including the comments from Rachel herself, who comes off as a strong, intelligent, and very much still vibrant woman – show that to be true. 'Jackie Robinson' is a fitting tribute to a great American, and just as the man was about a whole lot more than baseball, even if you don't like the sport, you owe it to yourself to watch this wonderful and important documentary from a group of great filmmakers.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Jackie Robinson' hits a home run on Blu-ray in a standard Elite keepcase. The case contains the two 50GB discs along with a single insert that advertises the shoppbs.org website. A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase slides overtop. There are no front-loaded trailers on either disc, whose main menu is a black and white still of Jackie on the right with a video montage of black and white footage on the left. Menu selections are placed horizontally across the bottom of the screen.
The Blu-rays in this release are Region A locked.
'Jackie Robinson' is presented in its original television aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is surprisingly given a 1080i interlaced transfer instead of a more typical 1080p progressive one. As anyone who has seen a Ken Burns documentary in the past should probably suspect, the presentation here involves still black and white photographs, both black and white as well as color archival footage (most of it not in the best of shape), plus new interview footage that has been shot with digital cameras. The still black and white photos actually come off the sharpest of the imagery here, although mild macroblocking and a touch of noise does creep in every now and again.
Nothing here really has a lot of 'pop' to it, with even the new interview material lacking any real sense of depth or definition. Still, the quality of the transfer is good enough for a pleasant viewing experience, although I'm not sure the difference between the standard DVD version of this release and the Blu-ray one would be so great to say that HD is definitely the way to go if one should find the DVD version significantly cheaper than the other (as of this writing, they were close enough in price that I would say the extra few dollars is worth it).
'Jackie Robinson' comes with an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that is – as one might guess – more than a documentary like this one probably needs but appreciated nevertheless. There's nothing really immersive about the lossless track, but it does do a nice job of separation of the various sounds. The dialogue is front and center, and comes off crisply – with even the historical audio bits sounding nice and clear, with no hissing and little in the way of sounding murky. The rears are primarily used to enhance the musical score of the presentation, which is a combination of both period music and a brand-new jazzy soundtrack by Wynton Marsalis. While there's nothing audio-wise that is going to impress, there's also nothing in terms of glitches or evident issues.
English and Spanish 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are also an option, as is an English 2.0 DTS-HD Descriptive Video track. Subtitles are available in both English SDH and Spanish SDH.
Note: All the bonus materials listed below appear on Disc 2 of this set.
'Jackie Robinson' hits a home run by not just focusing on the acclaimed baseball player's sports career, but also examining his upbringing as well as his involvement in the civil rights moment after his playing days were over. It's a well-made documentary from Ken Burns & Co., and it's worth a spot on any documentary fan's shelf. Recommended.