Skip to main content

Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses at Ebbets Field in the Brooklyn borough of New York, April 11, 1947.JOHN ROONEY/The Associated Press

Baseball is back and there is, hereabouts, a giddiness in the air. Perspective is called for, so let's look at history.

There is a Canadian Heritage Minute about Jackie Robinson, as there should be. The 1947 baseball season was the turning point in the history of American sports, when Robinson became the first African-American to play in the big leagues. But it was the season before, in 1946, when Robinson first entered what that Heritage Minute calls the world of "white" professional sports. He became a member of the Montreal Royals, the minor-league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. On April 18, 1946, Robinson stepped onto the field playing for the Royals. There was a fuss, as there would be throughout so much of Robinson's life. But that year with Montreal is just a sliver of the whole story.

Jackie Robinson (Monday and Tuesday, PBS, 9 p.m.) is Ken Burns's epic, four-hour, two-part examination of Robinson's life and career. It is, in the acclaimed Burns fashion, enormously engaging and enlightening. At times it is subtly incandescent with rage at the past, mournful with shame at what America was.

We first hear from Robinson's wife Rachel, who talks about him being "an expressive, loving man." A voiceover introduces him as an "an uncompromising crusader" and "a supremely gifted athlete." Then, as is fitting, the first person to speak in the documentary itself is Barack Obama.

Burns, who has worked on documenting the civil-rights movement and who made the majestic 1994 Baseball series for PBS, is the perfect filmmaker to tackle the tangled story – that of a complex, difficult, public man who didn't always quench the temper that racial slurs and abuse ignited. A man who found peace at home with his wife and family and, when he finished playing, supported the civil-rights movement and brought more trouble on himself. He had, as Obama says, "purchased the right to speak his mind, many times over."

The production is phenomenally rich in archival footage but Burns, as usual, does not rely on images alone. The doc is a true education in the sociology and economics of the United States during Robinson's life. Everything, Burns knows, has context. And he sure does provide it.

The facts of Robinson's early life are stunning, in the context of race. In the year he was born, in 1919 in Georgia, Jim Crow segregation was in full effect and many black men were lynched that year. His dad walked off the farm for the city and never came back. His mother went west and worked as a maid in Pasadena, Calif. There she bought a house in a white neighbourhood. Some outraged neighbours burned a cross on her front lawn. Kids threw rocks at young Jackie and he threw them right back.

His life and times seem, as documented here, one long chronicle of bitter race divisions and prejudice. Robinson's older brother Mack was a fine athlete himself and was on the running team for the United States at the 1936 Olympics. He won a silver medal, coming second behind Jesse Owens. When he returned from Berlin, the only job he could get in Pasadena was as a street sweeper. He wore his Olympic team jacket while he swept the streets.

Jackie was more confrontational and had run-ins with the law, largely because he was harassed as a young black man in a town of mostly rich white people. His U.S. Army career too was marked by battles, big and large, about race. On an army bus he was ordered to sit at the back, and refused. A farcical court-martial charge ensued. Later, Martin Luther King would say that Robinson was "a freedom rider before freedom rides."

The first two hours cover Robinson's early life and his playing career. And yes, there is rare colour footage of the Montreal Royals period. The second half deals mostly with his postplaying days. It's a gnarly story on many levels and some radical youths came to despise Robinson, unfairly, for perceived compromises in his life. He went from national hero to being considered "out of touch" by some. But always, Burns deftly creates context, and the background emerges as painful and shameful. The American struggle with issues of race, you think, didn't change much from the time of Robinson's birth to his early death in 1972. In his last public appearance that year he said, "I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball."

Keith David narrates the doc with aplomb and Jamie Foxx does Robinson's voice reading letters and portions from his autobiography. It's a superb, epic documentary, never overfussy or flamboyant, but using the facts of life and history to make its point. At times that point, about race, could make you weep.

All times ET. Check local listings.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct