My current hometown baseball team is the Colorado Rockies. This is only their 20th season of play, so they are still a young franchise. They have yet to retire any numbers worn by past players. That is, except for the one number that has been retired by all of major league baseball. No player will ever wear it again…#42, the number worn by Jackie Robinson. Robinson was the first African-American to play baseball at the major league level. He faced a great deal of opposition and hatred as he broke down this barrier. He also responded to these challenges with a quiet dignity, choosing to let his phenomenal playing abilities say more than any words could. He was a great player, a great human being, and even played himself in the film of his life…1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story.”
The film moves very quickly, beginning with the young Jackie (Howard Lewis MacNeely) being given a baseball glove by a stranger. Soon the film shifts to Jackie the college student (now played by Robinson himself), a star in many sports, following in the footsteps of his brother Mack (Joel Fluellen). Still, the future doesn’t look bright for Jackie. After all, even though Mack was also a multi-sport champ, he can only land work as street sweeper. But Jackie’s problems finding work are soon solved when he enters the military and heads off to World War II.
Remember, I said the film moves quickly…so a few seconds pass and “poof” the war is over. Jackie returns home and continues his relationship with his sweetheart, Rae (Ruby Dee). Soon he ends up playing in baseball’s Negro League. He is a standout player and his talents soon come to the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Minor Watson).
Rickey ends up offering Robinson a spot on the Dodger minor league club in Montreal. But Rickey explains that no matter what kind of nastiness he faces, both on the field and off, Jackie cannot fight back. Jackie ends up signing on and begins his road to the big leagues.
It takes time, but Jackie begins to prove himself worthy of being in the Dodgers farm system. Still, he faces shouts and taunts from opposing fans, as well as fans of the Montreal team. When the team travels to an unnamed city the American south, he has to deal with members of a certain “club” lying in wait for him outside the stadium. When he gets the call to come up to Brooklyn, he even has to deal with a group of players who inform Rickey that they refuse to play with Jackie. But as Jackie helps lead the Dodgers to a pennant, even these players begin to stick up for their teammate.
This is definitely a simplified version of Jackie Robinson’s story. There are big jumps in the timeline as so many major events are squeezed into a tight 76 minute running time. The production is pretty low-budget. The sets are claustrophobic and not a lot of thought was put into the cinematography and the editing.
The film also feels over-scripted, made up of a lot of inspiring, sound bite type moments for both Robinson and Minor Watson as Branch Rickey. Honestly, it is Branch Rickey who comes across as more of the trailblazer in this film. I guess, in many ways, he was. He’s the one who really opened the door for Robinson. Watson gets many chances for inspirational speechifying and is quite good in the role. Though, there are some scenes where the script gets pretty brutal in it’s portrayal of racism. We see opposing players shouting for Jackie to shine their shoes and taunting him as they slurp down watermelon. I’m sure Robinson faced much worse, but the script is pretty brave in it’s depiction of these sort of moments.
But what about Robinson? A professional athlete playing himself in a dramatic role…not exactly a recipe for success. Well, Jackie was definitely not an actor, but his performance isn’t bad, either. As I watched, I got the impression that Jackie tried to do nothing more than be himself. His acting doesn’t set the world on fire, but it feels honest.
Despite its shortcomings, the film is still interesting. Interesting because of the historic events it portrays and the fact the man at the center of it all is the man appearing on film. “The Jackie Robinson Story” is not a great moment in cinematic history, but it is still an enjoyable look at one of the great moments in baseball history.