The Black Kino Fist: Black life as depicted in film history

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

"It’s unusual for a historical figure to play him- or herself in a bio-pic, but when history is unfolding in the present tense, and even at a pace that threatens to outstrip the grasp of art, it makes perfect sense. That’s why it’s so moving to see Jackie Robinson infuse the plain, spare, and bowdlerized 1950 film “The Jackie Robinson Story” with his own stolid grace and controlled determination. He’s no actor, but the situations that the workmanlike director, Alfred E. Green, and the screenwriters, Arthur Mann and Lawrence Taylor, create for him don’t require a lot of theatrical prowess. They require precisely what Robinson had: athletic ability, intelligence, and character.
The strangest part of “The Jackie Robinson Story” is the ending—Robinson is asked to go to Washington, D.C., to speak to Congress, and wonders whether he should go. Encouraged by Rickey to speak about “a threat to peace that’s on everybody’s mind,” he’s told, “Now you can fight back.” What he actually does when he delivers remarks on the subject of freedom and democracy is something that’s not named in the movie—he’s testifying before the Committee on Un-American Activities (something that actually happened in 1949).
Yet there’s something deeply moving about this dramatically flat movie: the fact that it exists in the present tense. If the film spends dramatic time on Robinson’s childhood and schooling, it’s because so many viewers at the time were unlikely to think of him as a regular man. His utter normalcy needed to be shown because it was, for many, in doubt as a sole result of the color of his skin. When Jackie and Rachel Robinson ride in the back of the bus beneath the sign mandating it, that sign was, at the time, the law of the South. When Mack and Jackie Robinson found themselves the victims of employment discrimination, there was no redress to be sought in the courts. The movie was made without the benefit of hindsight, with no particular reason to expect that the situation would change, with no apparent hope that Jim Crow laws would be pushed aside by the Supreme Court or that the integration of schools would take place under the authority of the National Guard. The movie’s bland modesty is peculiarly apt; it dispenses no bombastic triumphalism over the integration of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and indeed presents the integration of the major leagues as an oddly rapid afterthought, because, regardless of the symbolic importance of baseball’s integration, it actually improved circumstances for only a few hundred black Americans. Real change would entail a change in laws; it’s somehow appropriate for the movie to end up (albeit for the wrong reasons) at the Capitol."
-Richard Brody for The New Yorker
Status: Available for purchase
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