Jackie Robinson is the title and subject of documentarian Ken Burns’ newest work, a two-parter debuting on PBS on April 11, and he says it’s as much about the contemporary Black Lives Matter Movement as it is about baseball.
Burns told Mother Jones recently that Robinson is a crucial historical figure but much of his story has been glamorized, obstructing the real person. For example, the story that Pee Wee Reese, a white Brooklyn Dodger alongside Robinson, crossed the field after a game to put his arm around the first black player in front of a racist crowd.
Yeah, that almost certainly didn’t happen, but it’s been repeated in history books and children’s books and 42, the insanely boring 2013 film about the athlete.
The documentarian told Mother Jones:
“We felt that once you’re free from the barnacles of that sentimentality, once you’ve liberated them from the mythology, then all of a sudden, what’s this film about? Well, it’s about Black Lives Matter. They didn’t call it that back then. It’s about driving while black. It’s about stop-and-frisk. It’s about integrated swimming pools. It’s about the Confederate flag. It’s about black churches that are torched by arsonists. It’s about the Southern strategy, beginning in the 1960s more fully, took the party of Lincoln, founded in 1844 with one principle, the abolition of slavery, and turned it into and detailed a pact with the devil that Jackie witnessed firsthand. That they would then, because of the civil rights bill, go after disaffected Southern whites who had normally voted Democratic and employ what we call generously the Southern strategy.”
Burns said his documentary looks at moments like Robinson’s disappointment when presidential candidate Richard Nixon—whom he endorsed in 1960—wouldn’t stand up for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was arrested in Georgia and almost sent to a chain gang, where he could’ve died. Later, despite all Robinson’s considerable influence, “he couldn’t even get into the White House to see Nixon,” Burns said. He also mentioned Robinson’s strong dislike of John Kennedy, who’d been “terrible up to that point in civil rights.”
The documentary will likely be full of gems, including a focus on Mrs. Rachel Robinson as the strongest supporter of her husband while he was alive and caretaker of his legacy after his death in 1972.
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