Magazine article Newsweek

Ken Burns on Jackie Robinson, Donald Trump and History Repeating Itself; the Filmmaker's Latest Documentary Cuts through the Mythology Surrounding Baseball's Greatest Pioneer While Connecting the Dots between the Civil Rights Era and Today

Magazine article Newsweek

Ken Burns on Jackie Robinson, Donald Trump and History Repeating Itself; the Filmmaker's Latest Documentary Cuts through the Mythology Surrounding Baseball's Greatest Pioneer While Connecting the Dots between the Civil Rights Era and Today

Article excerpt

Byline: Ryan Bort

Updated | History remembers Jackie Robinson mostly as a myth, not a man. He was the humble ballplayer Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey used to break baseball's color barrier, the secular saint who turned the other cheek when confronted with racism. White America has preserved this gleaming image of the icon, but the real Jackie Robinson was far angrier than history remembers, and he continued fighting fiercely for African-American rights long after his playing career came to an end.

This is the Robinson who filmmaker Ken Burns--along with daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon--examines in his latest documentary, Jackie Robinson, which airs April 11 and 12 on PBS. Some myths need to be dispelled, especially in the case of a complicated figure like Robinson, whose work as an activist is just as important now as it was 50 years ago. Interviewing everyone from Robinson's wife, Rachel, to President Barack Obama and the first lady, the Civil War and Baseball director does just that as he explores the misunderstood life of one of America's greatest civil rights pioneers.

Coinciding with the production of Jackie Robinson was the reintroduction of the issue of race into mainstream discourse in America. From Trayvon Martin to Ferguson, to Eric Garner and beyond, the issue has taken perhaps its most prominent role since Jackie Robinson was fighting for civil rights in the '60s. Because race has always been the dominant story of American history, it's also been the dominant story of Burns's work. Few others are able to so astutely draw parallels across generations in order to show what has changed and, more importantly, what hasn't.

After Dylann Roof brutally murdered nine African Americans worshipping inside a Charleston, South Carolina, church in June of 2015, Burns called the city's then-mayor Joseph Riley to ask what he could do. The result was a series of conversations this spring with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates to discuss race in America today.

"If you look at a lynching photograph from the 1920s or '30s, you are drawn immediately to the African-American corpse," Burns said during one such conversation that took place in March at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. "But if you look at the people standing around, they're smiling, and some of them are little kids, and those little kids are alive today and perhaps speaking to Dylann Roof and telling him about what he has to fear."

Burns was able to sit down with Newsweek the morning of his talk with Gates. In the back of the near-empty bar of Austin's Driskill Hotel, he spoke with with no less passion, enthusiasm and purpose than he did to a far larger audience in the Austin Convention Center later that day. Though Burns is known for documenting the past, his enegery is just as focused on how its lessons can be applied to the present.

Have you always felt Jackie Robinson is underrated as an activist?

Yes. If you look at it, he represents the beginning of the modern age of the civil rights movement. As we say in the film's introduction, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, he was "a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom riders." When he [made his major league debut] on April 15, 1947, there had been a lot of civil rights going on in the 20th century up to that point. But at that moment, Dr. King is still a junior at Morehouse College. Harry Truman hasn't integrated the military yet. Brown v. Board of Education hasn't happened. There are not organized sit-ins at lunch counters, although as a teenager Jackie had done that. Rosa Parks is a decade away from refusing to give up a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus--but Jackie did that in 1944. That's what makes him so seminal.

In some ways, if it's in the 20th century, it's the beginning of the second act of civil rights. He was a major character. [We aimed to] get rid of some of the barnacles of mythology that encrusted around him, the superficiality that our conventional wisdom always suggests. …

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