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Jackie Robinson (PBS/DVD/2016)

Well, when the name “Ken Burns” is attached to any documentary, you can relax and enjoy the ride, no matter how long it may be. And “Jackie Robinson,” a four-hour, two-disk doc does justice to the man as well as to the symbol. 

Robinson (1919-1972) was the first African-American baseball player to be hired by a formerly all-white team, the New York Giants, in 1947.  The 29-year-old native of Cairo, Georgia, reared in Southern California (Pasadena), was the Rosa Parks of the sports world, challenging common misperceptions of Blacks and the resulting political and social evils connected to racism.

What Burns and his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon, have offered us is the easiest way to learn history as they not only profile the main subject, but put him into context for us:  how racism manifested itself in the American South (separate seating in buses, in train stations, drinking fountains, eateries, etc), as well as throughout the rest of the country in segregated housing, schools, etc.  An desperate time for African-Americans, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Latinos and Asians. 

The folk in charge were right to take this project on now, with so many of Robinson’s contemporaries, wife, children, and sports commentators able to give their remembrances or, in the case of President of the USA, Barack Obama, and his wife, Michelle, how his pro-integration actions influenced their own upbringings.

The four-hours are a strong investment of time to learn about this great man and his courageous deeds, before he came over to the baseball “white leagues,” including standing up for his rights as a U.S. Army Lieutenant (in a segregated service) and demanding his right to vote.  Granted, living in California was somewhat easier than living in, say, Alabama or Georgia, but the stresses of prejudice were still present in every state. 

The folk in charge managed to find hundreds of photos documenting his person and professional life, including after his baseball career was ended, working for NYC’s Chock-Full-o’-Nuts (a popular coffee) corporation. 

And for students of the Civil Rights Movement, having singer Harry Belafonte, contemporary baseball players, and, especially, his widow, Rachel, speak up on his positive-actions in making people aware of the direness of racism, helps explain to us today what obstacles this man faced in his long life.  He died in 1972, from the effects of diabetes and heart-disease.

This is a great documentary.