Ken Burns on Why We Need Jackie Robinson More Than Ever
Part of Ken Burns’ talent as a filmmaker lies in his ability to tell big stories – about the Civil War, Jazz, Prohibition – through the eyes of the individuals who lived them.
Like Howard Zinn before him, Burns believes that history is the story of the human experience, and that each voice he unearths from the past helps create a collective consciousness. If there is a big lesson to be learned from all those eyewitness accounts, it’s this: No matter the era, society has always struggled with the same issues – of morality, spirituality, fairness, etc. – and despite our best intentions (and our wealth of previous experiences) that’s no different today.
His latest film is a prime example of that. In Jackie Robinson, a two-part, four-hour series premiering April 11 on PBS, Burns – who co-directed the project with his daughter, Sarah, and her husband, David McMahon – sheds new light on the American hero we all thought we knew. Through Robinson’s own words, and conversations with those closest to him, Burns paints a portrait of a man who wrestled with the same issues that bedevil us today, presenting him as something more than just a civil rights hero, or the first black man to play Major League Baseball. In a sense, he succeeds in making Jackie Robinson a man, first and foremost.
Recently, Rolling Stone spoke with Burns about his new film, presenting a different side of an American icon and whether we’ll ever see another Jackie Robinson in our lifetime.
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier – why release this film now?
So, years ago, I made a big series on the history of baseball, and Jackie was the moral center of it all. I think there was only one episode where there wasn’t at least a mention of him. So we’ve covered his birth, his childhood, his courtship of [his wife] Rachel, the Negro Leagues, his coming up to the majors, his breaking the color barrier, his career, his retirement, his last days – I felt that within the Baseball series, there was a narrative of Jackie’s life. But in the aughts, Rachel started calling me, saying Jackie deserves standalone treatment. And I agreed, but we were finishing other projects, so she agreed to wait for us.
It was an exciting opportunity for us to promote the mythology as much as the facts; we didn’t want to just regurgitate the old tropes that Red Barber told us – those things that are immortalized in children’s books and statues. We wanted to do a bigger, fuller portrait of Jackie. It was important not to just say, “Branch Rickey was God, and decided because of his own moral compass he was going to do this.” He had economic concerns as well. Or that Jackie was the only one, you know, God’s gift to us all, when in fact, there were plenty of other players in the Negro Leagues. The real story is much more interesting and fluid – we’re very proud of what we’ve created; a multigenerational portrait of an African-American man. And it’s a love story, too.