Rob Edelman: Jackie Robinson

Apr 1, 2013

42 is a new biopic about the life of Jackie Robinson, the legendary baseball player who was the first African-American to play in the major leagues during the 20th-century. But this new Jackie Robinson film is not the first Jackie Robinson film. THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY came to movie theaters in 1950: 63 years ago, three short years after Jackie debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY is well-worth recalling and seeing for several reasons. First, the real Jackie Robinson plays himself, and he gives an awkward but affable performance. But more importantly, its scenario is simple and direct, at once a relic of its era and a valuable social history. It deals with issues that transcend singles, doubles, and dingers, making the team and winning the Big Game.

For one thing, THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY is very much a product of its era: the dawn of the civil rights movement. When it was released, 21-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. recently had received his BA from Morehouse College and was a first-year student at Crozer Theological Seminary. Brown v. Board of Education and the signing into law of the Voting Rights Act respectively were four and fifteen years in the future. No one could foretell the scope of the demand by black Americans to share equal rights with white Americans. And Hollywood, after years of marginalizing black characters, was belatedly beginning to acknowledge its biased depiction of African-Americans.

Previously, the industry consistently had demeaned its black characters, trivializing them as stereotypical mammies, Pullman porters, and shoeshine boys who fractured the English language. However, in 1947, BODY AND SOUL, a classic boxing film, featured an African-American supporting character, an ex-champion played by Canada Lee, who is articulate, soulful, and respected by the main character, a Caucasian, played by John Garfield. When Ben talks of what it feels like to strut down Harlem’s Lenox Avenue after winning a fight, there at least is the acknowledgment that he thrived within a community of his own.

Then in 1949, a quartet of films-- INTRUDER IN THE DUST, LOST BOUNDARIES, HOME OF THE BRAVE, and PINKY-- attempted to depict blacks not only as victims of a racist society but as three-dimensional characters, as complex and tormented as their Caucasian counterparts. Granted, in these films, the black characters were portrayed through the sensibilities of white screenwriters and directors. They are victims, who are baited by racist white villains and supported or rescued by fair-minded white heroes.

This same value system exists in THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY. Upon researching how the film came into being, I learned that the individual most responsible for its content was Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager and powerbroker who signed Jackie and brought him to the majors. The film highlights Robinson’s struggle, and in no way does it downplay the bigotry he faced upon signing with the Dodgers and working his way to Brooklyn. But the scenario does stress that, in due course, fairness will prevail. If you believe otherwise, well, just look at Jackie Robinson. He is black-- and here he is, playing major league baseball and starring as himself in a movie.

THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY puts forth the idea that, in America, for every exclusionary bigot, there is a man who is fair and humane, a man who will judge Jackie solely on his performance between the foul lines. In other words, for every racist, there is... a Branch Rickey.

Yes indeed, in the wake of the release of 42, it would be a fine idea to take a look at, and ponder the content of, THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of  Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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