Thursday, April 19, 2018

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who are on the right side of history.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: April 15 marked the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, making him the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. To honor and celebrate this monumental achievement, Rob and I watched 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, an independent film starring Robinson as himself that charts his journey from adolescence to his first season played for the Dodgers. The movie itself is economical (to be polite) but effective at times and works best as a time capsule. Being born in the 1980s, it wasn’t common to see actual archive footage of Jackie Robinson playing baseball or being interviewed regularly on television (he had since passed away), so it was a bonus to see the real Jackie Robinson onscreen for 77 minutes in this film, even if it’s a G-rated version of himself. The story is so powerful that even a wobbly telling of the story is effective because you’re doing a lot of work in your head around the subtext of what Robinson is accomplishing. For example, he’s told by the team’s owner (Branch Rickey, played here by actor Minor Watson; it’s the best performance in the movie) not to fight back no matter what slurs are said to him or physical harm is instigated and in your head you are thinking how Robinson being there and refusing to go away is his way of most impactfully fighting back. As a baseball fan, it’s essential to know the Jackie Robinson story and films like 42 and The Jackie Robinson Story helped me understand the sport better in a historical context. The quality of the movie is almost secondary. What did you think of The Jackie Robinson Story, Rob?
Rob: I thought it was a fascinating watch. There are lots of little problems that betray the time in which it was made — the white characters all either support Robinson or are slowly redeemed over the course of the film, and the acts of racism are far tamer than those that actually occurred, ranging from mild to cartoonish — but as a SparkNotes run-through of Robinson’s incredible story, I thought it was inspiring and effective. The poor acting, production values, and overall ‘50s docu-drama aesthetic ended up adding so much to the charm value that it was heartwarming. A lot of that comes from Robinson himself, I think: I initially thought his choice to play himself was an obnoxious bid to sanitize and glorify his own story, but he plays everything so earnestly that you never get the sense that this is an ego project. In fact, Robinson seems eager to portray his doubts, fears, and insecurities at every turn and pay tribute to the people who inspired him to keep going. I agree that Minor Watson as Branch Rickey is the best part of the film (I kept thinking of Garry Marshall in A League of Their Own), and his long screeds about the moral and patriotic importance of baseball really made me smile. The thing about The Jackie Robinson Story, the thing I’ve always believed about all not-great-to-bad movies, is that those with the purest intentions are the ones we should unironically celebrate. It’s worth noting that this film was released in 1950, long before African Americans would be afforded civil rights in their current form. It took balls to release this film, and I have no doubt it influenced a lot of baseball fans’ feelings about segregation. I’m glad we’re covering it here.
Adam: I agree with much of what you just said. I didn’t dislike 42, but it did feel less sincere and more calculated than The Jackie Robinson Story. However, 42 was braver in getting inside Jackie Robinson’s head. The Jackie Robinson portrayed in this film is as straight arrow as can be conceived. I was hoping the movie would get into showing what seeing Jackie Robinson out on the field meant to African-American fans, but that doesn’t really happen with any depth. It’s almost told too much from a white perspective but, as you said, that is a signifier of 1950 more than anything. I liked some of the ‘50s touches (this movie feels older than that in a lot of ways), such as the random bits with that one teammate in Montreal who’s shorter than his teammates. It was something out of The Shaggy Dog or The Absent-Minded Professor; such a weird but charming beat. The film clocks in at a brisk 77 minutes and it has almost no time to slow its breakneck pace. The baseball footage is as sped up as the on-screen journey of Jackie from a boy to playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal. I was getting whiplash. It’s like skimming a Wikipedia page. As you said, I’m glad we’re covering the film here because it deepens my appreciation for Robinson as a man and it’s something I’ll think about every time I see his retired no. 42 at a major league ballpark. There’s a lot of charm to these 1950s sports biopics. I saw one years ago called Somebody Up There Likes Me about boxer Rocky Graziano (played by Paul Newman) and it’s an appealing flavor of melodrama to me. The Jackie Robinson Story is less polished but just as sincere. As you mentioned, I think much of that has to do with Robinson’s refusal to lean into hagiography about himself.
Rob: Those slapstick beats with Shorty were so odd that I kind of had to love them. I don’t remember much about 42, but I think you’re right that it probably handled Robinson’s conflicted state of mind a bit better. The scenes with the other players, too, were much more realistic (Personal shame: Alan Tudyk, a favorite face of mine, plays Ben Chapman, racist manager of the last MLB team to integrate: my Philadelphia Phillies). In The Jackie Robinson Story, the Montreal (and later Brooklyn) players kind of exemplify the film’s didactic “white-friendly” point of view: they’re almost always talking about Jackie to each other, never really to him. There’s that bit with the equipment manager who goes out of his way to get Jackie an actual locker, but a lot of the character and plot arcs are conveyed as independent vignettes such as the Racist Fan with the Bushy Eyebrows who succumbs to rooting for Robinson from afar or the exposition and table-setting delivered by the radio announcers. The movie goes out of its way to make sure white people understand that Jackie Robinson is a human being, and it often sacrifices actual time with the lead character for doing so. I understand that this is one of the movie’s goals, of course. Just an observation about the time and place in which it was made. I’m giving the film a Mark Ahn more for its intention than its execution, and I would encourage all baseball fans to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day by giving it a look.

Adam: Ditto. Mark Ahn for me too. What’s on tap for next week?

Rob: I’ve got a little treat for us. I’ve dug up my bag of old movie ticket stubs, and we’re going to take a trip back to 2002 and talk Ghost Ship and The Time Machine and other movies I spent legitimate money to see in theaters. This should be fun. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. It sounds good, guys! Cool to know the real Jackie Robinson portrayed himself in like an authentic and vulnerable way when there are so many other ways one could do that.
    Here’s to 5+ comments this time! I don’t comment much anymore but I do read em. 80s Madonna was the bomb.

  2. On a related note, the first Canadian hockey player to break the colour barrier recently passed away. You can read about his story here, if interested: