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‘Jackie Robinson,’ a Ken Burns documentary, takes a look back at man, myth

Jackie Robinson, shown with his wife, Rachel, and

Jackie Robinson, shown with his wife, Rachel, and their children, is the focus of a documentary by Ken Burns. Credit: Rachel Robinson

Jackie Robinson’s major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers was April 15, 1947, but a lesser-known date was his professional debut, 70 years ago next week, with the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals, on April 18, 1946, in Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium.

Monday and Tuesday, WNET/13 will air “Jackie Robinson,” a two-part film (at 9 each night) by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns (his daughter) and David McMahon (his son-in-law). Robinson — who died October 24, 1972, at the age of 53 — not only broke baseball’s color barrier but was a seminal figure in the civil rights movement. The Burns film covers this extraordinary life and legacy. Ken Burns and I spoke recently. An edited version of our conversation:

Robinson was obviously a huge part of your 1994 film series, “Baseball.” What’s new here?

The first episode rescues Jackie from the syrupy mythology that’s been weighing him down for years, but the second part is a whole new territory that we need to know about. [Robinson documentaries] mostly tend to focus on just the year 1947, [but] his achievement is even more miraculous when you understand the kind of competitive and driven human being he was, before, during and after the three-year agreement [he made with Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey] when he had to ‘‘turn the other cheek.’’

And if possible we wanted to get rid of the false mythological tropes and tell a more complete picture. For example, Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around him [in a game in Cincinnati]? Didn’t happen. This is not revisionism, with us telling you the person you thought was good is no longer good, but that this is a more complicated story with undertow — that it’s actually not just a baseball story, but also a civil rights story, and a story of a multigenerational African-American family, and also a love story.

It’s been noted — as you also do here — that Robinson was later a Republican and supporter of President Richard Nixon. Was that a surprise?

To put in historical perspective, the party was founded with the principal goal of abolishing slavery. That was the party of Abraham Lincoln, and while the New Deal of FDR did begin a migration of African-Americans to the Democratic Party, it had represented to African-Americans the party of resistance to civil rights. So Jackie campaigns for Nixon and is disappointed Nixon doesn’t campaign in Harlem, but is outraged when Nixon won’t intervene when [Martin Luther] King is arrested. He didn’t like Kennedy, who wouldn’t look him in the eye — although I’m sure he voted for him in ’60 — but back then he was also supporting a moderately liberal Republican, Nelson Rockefeller, who’s to the left of Barack Obama.

Many of your films — like “The Central Park Five” [the 2012 Burns film about the five teens wrongly convicted of rape in 1989] — deal with some aspect of civil rights. Why so long in getting to this hugely important story?

In fact, Rachel [Robinson, Jackie’s widow, now 93 and living in Connecticut] had been calling us from the mid 2000s, saying we needed to do a stand-alone, but I’m so busy and finally found the time to do it. If you go back to my 1994 story on baseball, it’s nine episodes corresponding to nine innings — eighteen hours — and Jackie is in every episode except episode two. It wasn’t that we cut corners but that corners had already been cut.

But in “Baseball,” did you fear you had perpetrated some of those myths you are now trying to correct?

It was the accepted wisdom at the time. With this film we’ve dug deeper, and have a more complicated and nuanced portrait, and in this you realize how fortuitous and accidental Branch Rickey’s picking of Jackie is.

You almost have to back up and put in perspective that moment when he walked out onto that diamond on April 15, 1947. It’s a seismic change in history. King is still a junior in Morehouse College in Atlanta, Harry Truman hasn’t yet decided to integrate the military. There were no organized sit-ins yet, but young Jackie Robinson is still insisting on being served in whites-only restaurants. Rosa Parks hadn’t yet refused to give up her seat, but Jackie had already done that in 1944 [for which he was arrested and court-martialed]. He was a seminal figure — we didn’t get that wrong in the first film — but we didn’t get it completely right, either. There’s been new scholarship and new research since that’s permitted us to liberate ourselves from the quicksand of that tired old version.

How is Rachel Robinson doing?

We filmed these interviews with her when she was over 90, and she is one of the most formidable human beings I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. She has all her marbles, and she very generously not only opened up the archive that she created to keep of her husband alive, but she opened up her heart and shared with us some unbelievably painful memories, but triumphant moments, too. She knew she wanted the real story, free of the myths and tropes, and a more nuanced and complicated one, too.

What was the biggest surprise for you that emerged during the making of this film?

Just how complicated it was to be Jackie Robinson, and negotiate an ever-changing civil rights movement. In the ’40s he was the most radical, and leading the charge, and by 1969 he was being called an Uncle Tom. He was getting up every day, walking the walk, and that’s what makes him so inspirational — to watch him negotiate his post-baseball career when he no longer had to turn the other cheek. His courage is what impresses me today.

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