The Jackie Robinson Story
The legend stars as himself in this biopic that traces his ascent from poverty to becoming the first black American to play major league baseball.
I like it better when the subject of a biography doesn’t have to play himself or herself in the movie. I like Angela Bassett rather than Tina Turner. I like Jamie Foxx rather than Ray Charles, Joaquin Phoenix rather than Johnny Cash and Halle Berry instead of Dorothy Dandridge. You get the idea.
But in 1950, there weren’t many candidates to play baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story so he played himself. Sidney Poitier would’ve been an excellent candidate, being of the right age, appearance and talent to pull it off, but hindsight is much clear than the day the movie was cast. Ruby Dee, however, was just beginning what would prove to be a distinguished career, and does a credible job portraying Robinson’s ride-or-die wife Rachel.
At his mother’s insistence, Robinson even sought out a minister of the gospel before making the decision to accept the challenge. The movie deals with all the things that Robinson did as the first Black player in the major leagues — the self-doubts about his talent, the racist opposition that he faced from teammates, opposing players and fans. A game was once cancelled because of Robinson, over a city ordinance that banned competitions between “white and colored” players. Even as they portrayed this, I winced every time I heard this grown man referred to as “boy.”
That’s why Robinson felt like he had to be twice as good to get the respect White players took for granted. “I can’t break in with a scratch hit and a fielder’s choice,” he said. “I’ve got to be the best ballplayer they’ve ever seen anywhere. I’ve got to set them on their ear.”
Rickey knew that it would take a special person to be the first Black player in the majors, and told Robinson that despite all the grief he would catch, that he couldn’t fight back. When asked what he would do if a White player struck him on the cheek, Robinson shows that Rickey, a born-again Christian, that he knows his Bible. “Mr. Rickey,” Robinson said, “I’ve got two cheeks.”
Even though Robinson is a little bit stiff in the role, it pays to remember that acting wasn’t his primary skill. The rest of Hollywood wasn’t at its best either. I laughed out loud when the catcher had to come out of his crouch to haul in a called strike above the batter’s head.
Nevertheless, the movie achieves its primary aim and is instructive about what life was like in a different time, when Black people weren’t served at certain restaurants, or allowed to use the restrooms, and how dreadfully similar it remains in some aspects now. Just as now, there were sympathetic white players who helped show that a Black player mattered.
The forward thinking that most made Robinson’s career possible is accurately depicted by Minor Watson, playing Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. Robinson makes a great play in the field and Rickey exclaims, “No other human being could’ve made that play!” To which, Robinson’s manager, Clay Hopper, responds, “Mr. Rickey, you really think he is a human being?” Sadly, that kind of thinking still is alive and well in 21st-century America.
The movie merits the Dove-approved Seal for All Ages.
The Dove Take:
Trail blazers always suffer the first slings and arrows, and this movie covers them all.