Burns on Jackie Robinson: ‘He made a huge difference’
by Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
After his nearly 19-hour-long “Baseball” in 1994, even documentarian Ken Burns thought he had exhausted the subject – particularly when it came to barrier-breaking star Jackie Robinson.
“We knew we had a wealth of information and we thought we had put it in our film. In fact, Jackie Robinson appears in all but one of the nine episodes of the ‘Baseball’ series,” Burns told ESPN. “He was sort of the moral center of it.”
But after Robinson’s widow, Rachel, pitched the idea of a standalone documentary, Burns began to reconsider.
“We were able to do a deeper dive and find out a good deal of the things we assumed were sort of mythological, or sentimental, or didn't reflect the reality of the situation that the real story of Jackie is much more complicated and therefore much more interesting,” Burns said. “It gave him dimension. Mythology sort of softens the edges.”
The result is Burns’ two-part Jackie Robinson, airing at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on Panhandle PBS.
The project is the latest collaboration between Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and fellow filmmaker David McMahon after 2012’s The Central Park Five. Robinson continues the filmmakers’ exploration of racial relations in America, this time through the prism of a man who had a massive impact during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s.
“Jackie actually got up and talked the talk, but also then went out and walked the walk,” Burns told ESPN. “He got up every day and tried to make the lives of other people better and it says that on his gravestone, that you are not measured except by the difference that you make in other people's lives. And he made a huge difference.”
Reviews are quite positive.
“Ken Burns has been taken for granted for a long time. He shouldn’t be,” writes Mark Feeney for the Boston Globe. “He’s on any plausible short-list of great working American film directors.”
Burns’ “new documentary, full of joy, heartache and hate, leaves you to wonder: Will Americans ever reach a point where we stop talking about race? Does the very discussion of it ease tensions or prolong our divisions?,” writes Chris Erskine for the Los Angeles Times.
About half of the two-part Robinson documentary deals with his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The rest explores his life before and after, including his decision to campaign for Richard Nixon in 1960 and his struggle to stay relevant as civil rights protests grew more militant and violent in the later 1960s.
Rachel Robinson, now 93, plays a significant role in the film – mirroring that she played in her late husband’s life.
"I think the thing I miss the most is having a trusted friend," she says. "The second thing I miss the most is having his arms around me."
“She is tough, thoughtful,” Burns said. “She has all of her marbles, and some of mine, and I want them back.”
President Barack and Michelle Obama also appear in the film, reflecting the Robinsons’ impact nearly 70 years on.
“It’s a sign of his character that he chose a woman who was his equal,” Mrs. Obama says, inspiring a knowing smile from her husband.