The Jackie Robinson Story: A Reflection of Its Era
Edelman, Rob, Nine
The "Jackie" in question is Jackie Robinson. In the mid-199os, Spike Lee attempted to mount a celluloid biography of the Brooklyn Dodgers legend who, as a twenty-eight-year-old rookie in 1947, integrated Major League Baseball (MLB). (1)
Lee's film would not have been the first Robinson biopic. Three years after debuting with the Dodgers, Jackie himself starred in The Jackie Robinson Story, a Hollywood life story that deals with issues which transcend singles, doubles, and dingers, making the team and winning the big game. The Jackie Robinson Story is very much a product of its era: the dawn of the civil rights movement. When it was released in 1950, 21-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. had recently received his BA from Morehouse College and was a first-year student at Crozer Theological Seminary. Brown v. Board of Education and the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law were respectively four and fifteen years in the future. No one could foretell the scope of the demand by black Americans to share equal rights with white Americans. (2)
And Hollywood--after years of marginalizing African American characters as mammies, housemaids, janitors, and Pullman porters, who comically wrecked the English language--finally began acknowledging that racism was intrinsic to the American experience. (3) Body and Soul (1947), a classic boxing film, features an African American supporting character--an ex-champion named Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee) who is articulate, soulful, and respected by the main character, Charlie Davis (John Garfield). When Ben talks of what it felt like to strut down Harlem's Lenox Avenue after winning a fight, there at least is the acknowledgement that he thrived within a community of his own. (4) But the era's other progressive, well-intentioned films--for example, Intruder in the Dust, Home of the Brave, and Lost Boundaries, all released in 1949--feature sympathetic, victimized black characters who exist entirely in Caucasian worlds. Even though they are more three-dimensional than the stereotypical Stepin Fetchit, and are as complex and tormented as Caucasian characters, they are portrayed through the sensibilities of white screenwriters and directors--and, as in Body and Soul, they are portrayed in relation to Caucasian characters. They are baited by racist white villains and supported/rescued by fair-minded white heroes. (5)
This same value system exists in The Jackie Robinson Story. All the film's makers are Caucasian, and the individual most responsible for its content is Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager and powerbroker who signed Jackie and brought him to Brooklyn. (6) As it highlights Robinson's struggle, the film acknowledges the reality of racism in America. But the scenario stresses that, in due course, fairness will prevail. If you believe otherwise, just look at Jackie Robinson. He is black. And here he is, playing major-league baseball. In America, for every exclusionary bigot there is a man who is fair and humane, a man who will judge Jackie solely on his performance between the foul lines. In other words, for every racist, there is a Branch Rickey.
Back in the late 194os, given his accomplishment and celebrity, it seemed that Jackie Robinson would have been a natural subject for a screen biography. In fact, just after Jackie's MLB debut, Lawrence Taylor, a baseball fan and screenwriter whose credits included a couple of Philo Vance mysteries and several other B films, penned a screenplay about Jackie's struggles and triumphs. But Taylor found no takers for his script. The reason: its primary character was African American. The writer reported that several unnamed major studios were interested in his script, but only if it was rewritten and fictionalized to include a white athlete/hero who mentored Jackie--one who, in essence, would play Svengali to Jackie's Trilby. (7)
But the production of films like Intruder in the Dust, Home of the Brave, and Lost Boundaries--as well as Gentleman's Agreement (1947) and Crossfire (1947), both of which exposed the insidiousness of anti-Semitism--augured well for Taylor. …