Longtime fans of Ken Burns know that the legendary documentary filmmaker can produce works of great beauty and power, but sometimes falls prey to sentimentality and repetitive, unsubtle narratives. Luckily, his new film Jackie Robinson catches him at his best, and is probably his best short-form (“short” means “only four-hour”) film since Unforgivable Blackness.
One might think Burns has little more to say about Robinson, given how much time the baseball hero gets in Burns’ 22-hour series Baseball, so one of the most pleasant surprises here is now much of the material touches fresh notes in Robinson’s biography. Of course, Robinson’s baseball career takes up over half of the total running time, featured in the last 90 minutes of Part I and the first hour of Part II, and Burns does cover many of the same events he did in Baseball, even pulling some of the interview footage from his 1994 film, which allows Buck O’Neil to take a victory lap in a new film, among others. But even here Burns finds new material, particularly with regards to Robinson’s struggles towards the end of his baseball career, and his uneasy transition out of the sport and on to later business and political interests.
The last hour of Part II gives us a ground-level view of the great civil rights struggles of the 1960s, for which Robinson was on the front lines, along with his remarkable wife Rachel and young family. Robinson wasn’t without contradictions (few American heroes are), such as backing Richard Nixon in 1960 and finding himself slightly out of touch with the more muscular and culturally assertive African American culture that emerged toward the end of that decade, but he showed immense dedication and courage as a celebrity activist.
Burns keeps the pace surprisingly snappy all the way through, taking a very quick tour through Robinson’s childhood and through many of the machinations that got him into Major League Baseball in 1947. Burns seems to presume that the viewer is familiar with the sport and its business operations (never explaining, for example, the distinction between an owner and a manager), as well as its segregated history (the Negro League is mentioned, but a description of its fast, intelligent style of play feels cursory). This is probably a fair assumption for anyone wanting to learn about Robinson, and is of a piece with his larger-scale view of the man and his times. Baseball was only one of the things that Jackie Robinson worked for and did with his life. The political machinations that play out in the last half of Part II set the stage for some very current political issues (George Will explains how Robinson, among others, was responsible for leading African Americans away from the Republican party) and the interviews with President and Mrs Obama throughout do not seem out of place. Robinson had a large life indeed.
Other notable talking heads are Burns’ usual cast of historians and baseball veterans, many of whom can be seen in Unforgivable Blackness and, of course, Baseball, but the most remarkable voice here is Rachel Robinson herself. Vivacious, articulate, witty and extremely clear-minded, Mrs Robinson, now 93, provides a key eye-witness to everything the film discusses and she, along with two of her children, speak very admirably for Jackie. Through them, one gets a very tangible sense of how the man would have wanted his story to be told, and what he would have had to say, looking back from today on the events of his life.
Robinson was far from perfect, but his fiercely determined eyes shine through all the footage and photographs we’re shown of this remarkable American. He made mistakes, and had weaknesses, by his own admission, in business affairs and generally with his temper, but once he committed to something, he was in it to win. That never changed about him, even has he was struck with family tragedy, changing times and finally serious health problems that brought his life to a premature end. Ken Burns finds a creative way to explore the issue at the heart of so much of the American conversation – race – that is neither sentimental nor strident, but simply a story that needs to be told, through the eyes of someone who did his best to negotiate his own path through history.