Jackie Robinson speaks before the House Un-American Activities Committee, July 18, 1949. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)
I'm both excited and apprehensive about the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. I'm excited because any high-profile film and attendant discussion about the man Martin Luther King, Jr., called "a freedom rider before freedom rides" should be a positive. I'm excited because the film might stir people to read brilliant books like Jules Tygiel's Baseball's Great Experiment, Chris Lamb's Blackout and Arnold Rampersand's Jackie Robinson: A Biography. I'm apprehensive because we know what Hollywood does to history. It's not unlike what a monster truck does to a ferret: leaving it flattened and unrecognizable with all its sharp teeth knocked out. Historical movies about sports and the triumph over racism are often even worse. Films like Glory Road or Remember the Titans follow the s-i-c formula: segregation, integration, celebration. In a biopic of the man who broke baseball's color barrier, that formula would be particularly ironic since Jackie Robinson was doubting his own integrationist belief in the better angels of this country at the end of his life.
I will watch 42 with an open mind. However, here in advance are five aspects of Jackie Robinson's tumultuous, politically complicated life story I fear won't make the film's final cut.
1. Branch Rickey was no saint. Based upon previews, it certainly appears that the hero of 42 will be not only Jackie Robinson, but Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey played by Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. Yet Rickey, while brave in bringing Robinson to the majors, hopefully will not be exempt from criticism. He is what Melissa Harris-Perry would call "an imperfect ally." Rickey was responsible for Robinson's entry in the majors. He also bears a great deal of weight for the implosion of the Negro Leagues, after Robinson made his debut in 1947.
The Negro Leagues weren't just a place of thwarted ambitions for the country's best African American players. They were also the largest national black-owned business in the country. Black owners, bookkeepers, trainers, coaches, and groundspeople were all part of what was a source of economic power, pride and self-sufficiency. Yet Rickey was ruthless in his dealings with Negro League owners, publicly claiming no obligation to compensate teams for signing away their talent. That became the pattern as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and many more were signed out of the Negro Leagues and this infrastructure of black economic power rotted away, creating a racial power imbalance in sports that persists to this day. Rickey's pilfering, layered with a public campaign of denigration, set the Negro Leagues on the road to ruin.
Rickey was also, as he said proudly, "no bleeding heart." He saw the economic advantage of showcasing, as Jackie Robinson said himself, "a patient black freak" for mass consumption. In fact, Rickey had far more public concern and condemnation for how black Americans would respond to Robinson than the reaction of white Americans. As he said at a mass meeting of New York's "respectable" black community, "The one enemy most likely to ruin [Robinson's] success are the Negro people themselves. You'll hold Jackie Robinson days, and Jackie Robinson nights. You'll get drunk. You'll fight. You'll be arrested. You'll wine and dine the player until he is fat and futile. You'll [turn him into] a national comedy and ultimate tragedy." The audience applauded. I'd love to see the film dramatize this scene and educate people about pre-civil rights class tensions within the black community. I'm not hopeful.
2. Testifying against Paul Robeson. The most high profile political event in Jackie Robinson's life is almost certainly not going to be in this movie. It was 1949, and Robinson took part in what he called "the greatest regret of my life," testifying against perhaps the most famous African-American in the country, the singer, actor and communist-aligned activist Paul Robeson, in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. When Paul Robeson said, “Blacks would never pick up arms against the Soviet Union,” HUAC wanted to bury him. To legitimize their attack, they called on Robinson to testify. This made perfect sense as Rickey and the media had presented Robinson, a proud veteran and patriot, as a symbol of racial progress.
Robinson, in a prepared statement to HUAC, said, “Every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he’s going to use every bit of intelligence he has to stop it. This has got absolutely nothing to do with what Communists may or may not do.... Blacks were stirred up long before there was a CP and will be stirred up after unless Jim Crow has disappeared.” Such a statement, both in the absence of a civil rights movement and directly in the face of a HUAC committee dominated by Dixiecrat segregationists, was incredibly brave.
However, it was Robinson’s next remark regarding Robeson that has stood the test of time. “I haven’t any comment to make except that the statement [about Blacks refusing to fight the USSR]—if Mr. Robeson actually made it—sounds very silly to me… Negroes have too much invested in America to throw it away for a siren song sung in bass.” With those words he had done the bidding of HUAC—giving them license and cover to attack and persecute Robeson. Robeson was asked to condemn Jackie Robinson but he wouldn't do it. Jackie's "greatest regret" should be a part of a film about his life.
3. The role of Lester "Red" Rodney and the Daily Worker newspaper. Speaking of Communists, without the radical Reds, it's highly likely that Jackie Robinson never gets the chance to break the color line. Lester Rodney, the sports editor for the US Communist Party’s Daily Worker paper from 1936 to 1958, launched a high profile labor-based campaign to integrate baseball in the 1930s. (Like thousands of others, Rodney left the party in 1958 when the extent of the crimes of Joseph Stalin were revealed.)
As he said, "[The campaign] just evolved as we talked about the color line and some kids in the YCL suggested, 'Why don’t we go to the ballparks—to Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds—with petitions?'"
This was history-making work. That petition campaign evolved into the issue becoming part of May Day and Labor Day mass union demonstrations where the slogan "End Jim Crow in Baseball" was displayed with proud prominence. In the late 1990s, Rodney's role was finally recognized and embraced. He was interviewed on ESPN and PBS and also spoke on panels in 1997, sitting next to Jackie's widow Rachel Robinson. I saw in the credits of 42 that an actor plays Wendell Smith, the legendary sports columnist and editor for the black newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. Smith worked alongside and exchanged articles for publication with Lester Rodney. I didn't see anyone playing Rodney. It's a greasy move if the filmmakers, after 15 years of appreciation and three years after his death, shove Lester Rodney back in the closet.
4. Jackie Robinson: Republican? Whether the powers behind 42 are Republican or Democrat, tackling Jackie's own politics are both an education as well as somewhat embarrassing for both parties. Robinson was a Republican for most of his life and people like former RNC chair Michael Steele have raised this in speeches as a way to highlight the party's historical roots in the black community—as well as a way to deny the present evidence of racism. But Robinson was a Republican because, from his Georgia birth, he had a hardened, and quite justifiable, view that the Democrats were Dixiecrats—the party of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow. When John Kennedy gave his speech to the Democratic National Convention, Robinson saw sitting by JFK’s side none other than Democratic Governor of Arkansas and notorious segregationist Orval Faubus, and this confirmed his worst fears that little had changed. But Robinson would be devastated as the Republicans became the new home of the Dixiecrats after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. When he was a guest at the 1964 Republican convention and heard Barry Goldwater speak, he said that as a black man, he finally understood "how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany." By 1968, he had endorsed Hubert Humphrey for President over old friend Richard Nixon. He's a Republican like Frederick Douglass was a Republican: a member of a party that no longer exists.
5. Political transformation. Robinson’s ideas further changed over the last five years of his life. He disagreed with his friend Dr. King for opposing the war in Vietnam. But then the realities of the war came crashing into his own life. His son, Jackie, Jr., saw combat in Southeast Asia and returned deeply scarred—carrying a gun, jumping at shadows and addicted to drugs.
Jackie, the fervent anti-communist, began to change his own views: “As I look around today and observe how lost and frustrated and bitter our young people are, I find myself wishing that there was some way to reach out to them and let them know that we want to help. I confess I don’t know the way.”
By the end of 1968, he supported the much-criticized movement among black athletes to boycott the Olympics, writing, “I do support the individuals who decided to make the sacrifice by giving up the chance to win an Olympic medal. I respect their courage. We need to understand the reason and frustration behind these protests… it was different in my day, perhaps we lacked courage.”
In 1969, this “veteran,” “Republican” and “anti-communist” wrote, “I wouldn’t fly the flag on the fourth of July or any other day. When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn’t my friend.”
I could very well be wrong. Maybe the film will be a politically sophisticated magnum opus. Maybe it will cover some of the above with nuance and flair. Or maybe we will be treated to yet another race and sports fable of segregation, integration and celebration. I hope not. History is often contradictory and complicated, and the best movies share these traits. Let's hope 42 embraces—and doesn't ignore—Jackie's contradictions, because it's within them that we learn the most pungent lessons for today. It's also within them that his bravery and sacrifice can best be appreciated in full.
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