- Jackie Robinson dir. by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon
JSH's spring 1996 roundtable on Ken Burns's sweeping Baseball critiqued "the nostalgic element of 'Baseball' … the pat, knee-jerk homilies of the middle-aged male chorus of talking heads … the baseball equals democracy equals America equals eternal promise variety."1 Steven Riess found the documentary's treatment of broader sociocultural themes lacking, and Jules Tygiel critiqued Burns's treatment of "the Jackie Robinson story" as representative of the inconsistent accuracy and sentimentality that marked the larger project.2 The journal's spring 2014 roundtable on Warner Brothers' 2013 Jackie Robinson biopic 42 reflected its frustrated response to Baseball. Richard Crepeau observed an overemphasis on transformative progress, and Nikolas Hardy argued the film's treatment of Robinson "falls short in unearthing the roots of Robinson's strength of character."3
Enter Ken Burns's 2016 Jackie Robinson, a four-hour, two-part documentary that opens with the following Jamie Foxx–narrated Robinson quote:
If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards, and citations, and a child of mine came into that room and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom and if I had to tell that child that I had kept [End Page 87] quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure in the whole business of living.
Part I covers Robinson's birth in Cairo, Georgia, and his California childhood up through his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Part II includes the remainder of Robinson's time with the Dodgers but focuses in greater depth on his postbaseball activism, ending with Robinson's return to baseball and death in 1972. Worth noting is a soundtrack that includes Wynton Marsalis originals and Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker jazz standards, which combine with oral history interviews and archival materials to contextualize Robinson in the post–World War II landscape of African American celebrity, entertainment, and popular culture.
In addition to narrating his baseball career, the documentary highlights Robinson's connection with Joe Louis during their time at Fort Riley, Kansas, and details how his baseball career was covered in nonmainstream press sources, specifically the African American press and communist and labor-movement publications. The documentary's focus on Robinson's activism during and after his baseball career emphasizes the fraught negotiations around black masculinity during the intersecting civil rights and Cold War eras.
In the documentary's conclusion, Robinson throws out a ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series before giving a speech that critiqued the continued absence of African American coaches and executives in Major League Baseball. The documentary's attention to Robinson's fractured relationship with professional baseball after his 1956 retirement highlights his frustration with professional baseball's institutional barriers and structural inequalities, as well as the tensions and contradictions in Major League Baseball's utilization of Robinson's career and legacy.
Despite an emphasis on challenging the "traditional" Robinson narrative found in The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) and 42, the new documentary is not without its problems. Its pace avoids the languid sentimentality of Burns's 1994 Baseball but has moments of relapse when the memories of talking-head pundits—fans, teammates, and broadcasters—detract from its laudable efforts to communicate and contextualize Robinson's own voice and actions. Similarly, sound bites from journalists, authors, and other notable celebrities, including Harry Belafonte and Barack and Michelle Obama, are generally insightful and relevant but raise unanswered questions about Robinson's legacy and the broader complexity of race, gender, and sport in the United States. John Thorn, official historian of Major League Baseball, makes an obligatory appearance, and Tom Brokaw provides a unique perspective on 1960s political landscape and presidential elections. Historians and African American Studies scholars Gerald Early, Michael Long, and Yohuru Williams appear in the film, and the compelling ensemble of Adrian Burgos, William Leuchtenburg, Geoffrey Ward, Khadijah White, and Craig Steven Wilder are listed in the...