Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson (Blu-ray)

In Blu-Ray’s by Rebecca Wright

The story of how Jackie Robinson broke modern major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947, is known by many. Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey offered Robinson the chance to play in the majors under the condition that he react passively to taunts and abuse, no matter how vulgar. Much of this was covered in the 2013 feature film 42.

Given that, it would be easy to assume that Ken Burns’ latest documentary (co-directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon, his daughter and son-in-law), is unnecessary. However, in this two part, four-hour film, Burns and his team go beyond the baseball diamond, and explore Robinson’s life as an outspoken civil rights activist who wasn’t always popular.

As a teenager, Jackie demanded service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and refused to sit in the segregated balcony at a local movie theater. In 1944, as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Robinson was arrested after he defied orders from a civilian bus driver to move to the back of a military bus. At trial, he was found not guilty. So, though it wasn’t his nature to stay quiet, Jackie agreed to Branch Rickey’s request for passivity during the first two seasons of his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. After that, he became vocal, arguing with umpires and speaking his mind to the press. Some fans felt he was ungrateful for the opportunity he’d been given. Many were happy to see Jacki retire after the 1956 season.

“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.”

After baseball, Robinson used his fame to aid the civil rights movement, raising money for the NAACP and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and campaigning for candidates he believed would work to improve the lives of African Americans.

Burns provides the usual impressive collection of photographs and film clips, interviews with friends and colleagues, historians and fans. The real gem is Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow. At 93, she seems as sharp as ever, and acts as a kind of guide through the entire film, sharing her recollections and personal memories of Jackie’s personal, and professional life. Theirs was a special relationship. I came away thinking that without Rachel, it’s likely Jackie wouldn’t have accomplished all he did.

Jackie Robinson is a powerful film, well worth watching, baseball fan or not.

Presented in the 178:1 aspect ratio, this 1080i presentation from PBS is quite good. A documentary, the film consists of lots of archival black and white footage, vintage photographs, home movies, and filmed interviews. The interview segments don’t offer any visual stimulation but appear natural. The full framed still photography looks great. Black and white levels are consistent, which lends a nice balance to the overall presentation. Given the varying media types used and their ages, this isn’t the type of presentation that will stun on high definition, but it’s pleasing nonetheless.

The lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio does a fine job rendering this dialogue heavy documentary. Keith David’s narration, Jamie Foxx’s voice portrayal of Jackie and the vocal reproduction during the various interview segments are clear and definitive. The period music interspersed throughout is used to wonderful effect. There are no real complaints, it serves the material well.

English SDH, English, and Spanish subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • The Anderson Monarchs (HD, 4 min) a short featurette on the inner city Philadelphia baseball team.
  • Outtakes (HD) three in total.
  • A Conversation with the Filmmakers (HD, 15 min.)