Ken Burns reclines in the back of a rented Town Car, whizzing through Washington on a media tour and talking about Jackie Robinson, race and the politics of polarization, when it suddenly dawns on you that the acclaimed documentarian has just destroyed a seven-decade construct of sports writers, biographers and the truly seminal historians of our time — Wikipedia contributors.
“Wait, Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie never happened?”
“That’s right. There is no image or write-up anywhere.”
“A photo maybe?”
“But .. there’s a statue in Brooklyn. And you played up this moment in your ‘Baseball’ documentary.”
“You’re right, there is a statue. And we did perpetuate it in 1994’s ‘Baseball.’ But it never happened. We know more now.”
At times, “Jackie Robinson,” the four-hour, two-part portrait of the first black man to integrate baseball, which premieres Monday and Tuesday on PBS, almost makes you want to ask Burns, his eldest daughter, Sarah, and her husband, David McMahon, why they didn’t entitle their new documentary “The Great White Benefactors Of Jackie Robinson — And Other Myths Ken Burns Vaporizes.”
The film constantly forces double-takes and reevaluations of so much that we have been told about the memory and mythology of Robinson.
Beyond laying waste to one of the most iconic moments of on-the-field empathy — Reese, the white son of a racist Kentucky railroad man, was supposed to have physically comforted Robinson in a show of solidarity in 1947 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, thereby silencing the racial epithets cascading from the stands — “Jackie Robinson” kills many other myths.
For instance, Branch Rickey wasn’t Abraham Lincoln as a Major League Baseball executive. He had social convictions, but mostly the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager wanted to get in front of New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s weekly radio address that aimed to slam New York’s three baseball teams for their discriminatory hiring practices.
“We sort of postulated that Branch Rickey reached down and touched Jackie, like Michelangelo,” Burns says. “He was supposed to be God, and Jackie was Jesus. Not exactly. … It wasn’t just Branch Rickey alone in the wilderness. It was a black press that had been active for decades pushing it. It was a left-wing press.”
Other long-held myths also take a fall:
Jackie and Rachel as the heavenly couple. It’s an enduring love story, but their marriage and family life were works in progress. At a resplendent 93, Rachel Robinson, who convinced Ken Burns he needed to be the person to tell her late husband’s full, unvarnished story, uses her time on camera almost as catharsis. She peels back the passion and pain: dealing with a son’s drug addiction and death, finding an identity apart from Wife of Famous Player, to the point that she insisted she wanted to go back to work, and the wrenching day when Jackie died in her arms at just 53 years old.
Why a man of such moral conviction — who Martin Luther King Jr. once said “was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides” — supposedly morphed into a pawn of Richard Nixon’s first presidential campaign. The documentary paints a different portrait: Robinson “flailing to find his place” amid the black militancy of the 1960s and early 1970s, as ESPN’s Howard Bryant observes.
It’s heartbreaking to see Robinson called an Uncle Tom and worse by Malcolm X and others, who wrongly believed that the man who broke baseball’s color barrier just up and stopped his crusade for civil rights one day.
Robinson, Burns shows, had the fortitude to stand up to so much, even after he became a household name, including during a birthday tribute to Reese at a game at Ebbets Field, in which a small Confederate flag was raised inside the stadium.
“Jackie was irate in the clubhouse afterward,” former teammate Carl Erskine recalls. “He wanted to know how they could possibly bring Jim Crow back to the ballpark.”
Part II goes into the lack of respect shown to the man who was there before the military was integrated and before Brown vs. Board of Education, even in spite of whom he politically supported and why, and it’s soul-crushing.
How did we get it so wrong all this time?
“Why did we preserve these stories over the years and embellish them?” Ken Burns asks. “The only real reason I can think of is because it gave white people skin in the game. They historically could feel singularly responsible for this, rather than deal with the truth: If the black press hadn’t strongly advocated over the years, if political pressure outside baseball hadn’t coalesced at this time, it never happens.”
“Cultural appropriation” can be thrown around loosely. But what greater cultural appropriation is there than convincing a group of people that their resilience was needed, but their liberation was inextricably linked to the goodness of well-intentioned white people?
It’s another of those historically inconvenient truths that Burns makes you confront.
“Jackie Robinson” arrives at a peculiar moment, when complexity and nuance can’t compete with polarization. As Burns said last month at the National Press Club, in part of a series of “Race in America” conversations with Harvard professor and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates, “We’ve actually gotten to a point in this country where not compromising is now celebrated.”
But this newly unearthed Jackie Robinson is worth the time because it demythologizes a complex, interesting man and why we feel the way we do about him. This documentary strips away the heroic veneer and liberates Robinson from his legend, which makes him feel more raw and human and that much more admirable.
The film hooks you from his opening 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 I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure at the whole business of living” — and brings you closer to the man you thought you knew.