1950 / 77 minutes
This is the true story of the first black man to play Major League Baseball, made all the more interesting by the fact that Jackie Robinson plays himself and does a solid job of it.
The story starts with Robinson as a boy getting his first glove. Time passes quickly and we soon seem him showing his athletics skills in multiple sports at the college level. But athletic skills, and even a college degree, didn’t get his brother a good job, so Jackie isn’t feeling optimistic about his future. He eventually lands a job with a traveling African-American team, but for low pay and with long days of travel keeping him away from his girlfriend.
However, it’s on that traveling team that he catches the eye of a Brooklyn Dodgers scout, who invites him to try out. Team president and part-owner Branch Rickey has both practical and principled reasons to want to integrate blacks onto his team: he had seen discrimination impact someone close to him and so wants to fight it, and he also knows that whatever team is first to integrate will have their pick of the best black players. Rickey wants Robinson to understand what sort of abuse he’d be signing up for. And most importantly, the two of them need to be in agreement that no matter what insults are directed at Robinson, or cheap shots delivered on the field, he can’t hit back. Robinson’s play, and not his fists, need to do that talking.
When Robinson agrees, he’s sent first to the Dodgers’ min0r-league affiliate, the Montreal Royals. After leading the league in hitting, he eventually gets the call to the Dodgers, and on April 15, 1947, he made his debut for them, blowing open the doors for many others to follow.
A modern-day reviewer criticized the film for presenting a muted version of the real events: we aren’t shown the worst of the insults and threats that Robinson had to deal with, and consequently, we don’t get a full appreciation of the courage he had to have to endure that gauntlet.
That’s a valid observation, but it misunderstands this film’s target audience. While it isn’t suitable for the very young, this is meant to be family viewing. Robinson is humble enough here but he is also trying to set an example that will impact the next generation. To reach that generation, he couldn’t make a gritty R-rated film. The end result is an account of a courageous man, and his backers, fighting both deep-seated bigotry and the more surface-level ignorant sort of racism, and his story has been made suitable for ages 10 and up.
Robinson made this film in the off-season, just three years after breaking into the major leagues. While he continued to get death threats throughout his career, this still marks an encouraging shift in the populace’s thinking. Just three years after many folks were jeering at him to get out, many more were now flocking to theaters to learn how he made it in.
So, even as this is “muted” there’s lots to love about it, including Robinson’s mother directing him to God, as he wrestles with decisions he has to make.
Because The Jackie Robinson Story is in the public domain, you can watch it in black and white for free below. But you can find it in higher resolution, and also in a colorized version, available on many streaming platforms that would make for much better viewing for a family movie night.