Marcos Breton: Race and politics from past, present merge in ‘Jackie Robinson’

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Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 7:46 PM

Robinson seemed an odd choice for this kind of profile treatment given that the first African American player in the huge leagues is already mythologized beyond human recognition.

Marcos Breton: Race and politics from past, present merge in ‘Jackie Robinson’

Filmmaker Ken Burns was on the phone with me late latest week, animated when discussing his new documentary about baseball grand Jackie Robinson, which aired Monday and Tuesday on PBS to grand acclaim and can be presently seen online at .

Robinson seemed an odd choice for this kind of profile treatment given that the first African American player in the huge leagues is already mythologized beyond human recognition. Robinson has been the subject of a and other endless tributes. Robinson’s number forty-two is already commemorated in every major-league park, and number huge league player will ever officially don the no again out of respect for his sainted legacy.

You’ve heard the story: Robinson “broke the color line” in major-league baseball, which previously had barred American and Latin American blacks from competing in America’s pastime. He played at an elite level while enduring racist catcalls and segregated living conditions. He was a civil rights figure long before anyone had heard of Martin Luther King Jr. His success predated desegregated schools, the Voting Rights Act of one thousand nine hundred sixty-five and a more just American way of life.

The passage of time has effectively filed down some of the coarse edges of Robinson’s experience. But “Jackie Robinson” – unspooling over four meticulous hours by Burns and his co-filmmakers – reminds us that we're not as evolved as we think we are.

In reviving the details of Robinson’s life, and the specific injustices he endured, the film lends itself to making contemporary connections. The intolerance and violence whipped up by politicians love Donald Trump is nothing new. The violence against African Americans and other people of color is nothing new. The mass incarceration of black men is nothing new.

“Black Lives Matter, ‘stop and frisk,’ the Confederate flag, Ronald Reagan’s states’ rights speech,” Burns said. “This is an old story.”

Mainstream media was largely against Robinson in the beginning of his major-league baseball career. Major publications predicted he'd fail when the Brooklyn Dodgers brought him up to the large leagues sixty-nine years ago this week. He earned grudging respect in his first two years in the large show, but public opinion – mostly fed by newspapers – turned against him when Robinson began to thrust back against bigotry.

“Early on, they liked Jack,” said his widow, Rachel Robinson, in the film. “But the min he began to defend himself,” that changed.

Burns’ film reminds us that Robinson’s true heritage was speaking clearly in the the face of intolerance. It shows him sag at times. It shows him being beaten down by constantly having to fight. But Robinson continued to winner equality when others remained silent.

With very few exceptions, Robinson’s wealthy white neighbors in suburban New York – a long way from the Jim Crow South – remained quiet as Realtors initially blocked his path to purchasing a home. “Northern racism is more detrimental,” Rachel Robinson said. “The practices in the S were easier to realize or fight against rather than more subtle forms of racism.”

The truth is, many of Robinson’s white teammates never did accept him – nor did the mostly white sportswriters who barely well-known his significance when he was alive. As a longtime sportswriter myself, I can tell you that the press box isn't much more racially diverse presently than it was in Robinson’s day. Many Latino players still obtain ignored. Whenever you hear modern sports-media types rail against dark-skinned athletes who “don’t play the game right” because they're demonstrative, it’s a modern get on an elderly slight hurled at Robinson.

There were many co-conspirators to bigotry in Robinson’s day – a fact that hasn’t changed. Chris Christie, the Gov of New Jersey, has led a procession of mainstream politicos endorsing Trump and his demagoguery. Closer to home, former Rep. Doug Ose endorsed the candidate who's disparaged women, Muslims, Mexicans and the disabled during his campaign.

I love Ose. I’ve broken bread with him. I was surprised when he endorsed Trump. But Ose’s act is hardly the most dreary reminder that not sufficient has changed since Robinson’s day. Burns began his film with a sequence showing a youthful Robinson being arrested in Pasadena for horsing around with an African American friend. Through sheer grace and luck, Robinson wasn’t killed in the many unnecessary encounters he'd with police in his day.

What’s been one of the main stories dividing America in recent years? The African American youths killed in unnecessary encounters with police.

Robinson once said that he spoke up because he wanted his children to know that he'd not remained quiet amid the intolerance of his day. When I see in the mirror, can I declare the same about myself? Yes and no. I’ve sometimes become worn down by the strident reaction, the hateful voicemails and emails and tweets you obtain whenever you write about race in America.

Burns said he made this film to “allow Jackie to speak to us” without “the shackles of mythology.”

Robinson was disillusioned by politicians of both major parties of his day, just as the two thousand sixteen campaign has seemed lacking to me when surveying candidates talking seriously about issues of race. In my own city, youthful people are killed routinely in Oak Park, Del Paso Heights and Meadowview while too many of us shrug.

If Robinson teaches us anything, it’s that we don’t have the luxury to be complacent because we haven’t arrive nearly as distant as we think we have. The past is still present; all that matters is what we’re going to do about it.

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