Genzlinger: Review: ‘Jackie Robinson,’ on PBS, Covers More Than Race and Baseball

By Neil Genzlinger | 

The core portion of Jackie Robinson’s story is so familiar that Part 1 of the new Ken Burns treatment of it may not seem like vital viewing. But Part 2 examines Robinson’s later, less celebrated years, completing a portrait of an eventful life that, in the popular mind, is often confined to the ball field. Robinson, of course, broke modern major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers called him up from the minors. The story of how Branch Rickey, the team’s president and general manager, offered him the pioneering chance to play in the majors on the condition that he react only passively to the inevitable taunts and abuses is well known to baseball fans, and it was the focus of the feature film “42” in 2013.

Part 1 of “Jackie Robinson,” Monday on PBS, revisits this history, with Robinson’s widow, Rachel, the principal guide. It remains one of the pivotal stories of 20th century America, simultaneously stirring and infuriating, with Robinson blazing a trail despite blatant and entrenched racism. But it’s in Part 2 on Tuesday night that Mr. Burns and his co-directors, Sarah Burns and David McMahon (his daughter and son in law), venture into the less clear cut part of Robinson’s life, when he became more outspoken about civil rights yet wasn’t always viewed heroically. 6/20/2016 Review: He had begun being more vocal even during his playing career, and after he stopped playing — 1956 was his last season — he used his fame more aggressively in the public arena. “Part of what I admire about Jackie Robinson is precisely his ability to approach baseball and those first two years of integration in ways that were contrary to his character, or his fundamental sense of what was right and wrong, in service of a larger cause,” President Obama says at the start of Part 2. “But that’s not something that made sense for him to sustain. He had purchased the right to speak his mind many times over.” That included becoming involved in politics, but his preferences weren’t always what you’d expect.

He supported Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 election and Nelson Rockefeller in the 1964 primaries — even as President Lyndon B. Johnson was pushing through the Civil Rights Act. As the 1960s grew more turbulent, Robinson’s relatively restrained approach was increasingly out of phase with the more vocal elements of the civil rights movement. Those raised black fists at the 1968 Olympics were a long way from the passive baseball rookie of 1947. “Jackie Robinson in the 1940s is the symbol of black masculinity,” the historian Yohuru Williams notes. “By the 1960s, that narrative has changed, and what you see with people like Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown is a much more militant, in your face view of black masculinity.” So the second half of Robinson’s story — he died in 1972 — becomes a fascinating study of fame during an era of tumult. It’s almost impossible to stay ahead of a wave of rapid change; today’s heroes are tomorrow’s afterthoughts. Only with the passage of time does the lasting import of a life like Robinson’s become clear again.


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