The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
Directed by Alfred E. Green
“This is a story of a boy and his dreams” says the narrator, as the camera opens on a young boy walking down the street. Jackie Robinson, known as the first black player to ever play a game in Major League Baseball, stars as himself in this biopic. In the first scenes, we see young Jackie fielding grounders with his bare hands, until a white man realizes his talent and gives him a ripped, old baseball glove. “You mean for keeps!?” It was, and he kept using it up till about the time he made it big. As calendar pages flip and years pass, the audience sees Jackie shining shoes and delivering newspapers to support his family. From early on, Jackie’s relationship with his mother is similar to that of Lou Gehrig and his mother in Pride of the Yankees, and she rears him like a responsible single parent. Jackie plays football, basketball, and track at UCLA, but baseball is “the one sport they’ll never let me in.” After a short stint in the Army (they only briefly mentioned it at all), Jackie gets a chance to play Negro League baseball. After his share of hatred and difficulties, Jackie makes it to the Major Leagues to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
One of the wonderful things about watching The Jackie Robinson Story is seeing old Number 42 playing himself in the film. While Jackie’s acting skills are subpar, they are good enough to make his character special. While the movie is in black and white and has below average sound quality, the fact that Jackie plays himself in the movie certainly adds realism. Ruby Dee plays Jackie’s girlfriend, and eventual wife, Rachel “Rae” Robinson in the movie. While both Rachel and Jackie’s mother support Jackie in his endeavors, they both have fairly insignificant roles in the film. In the scenes they are shown, they seem
to have loving relationships with Jackie. As well, Jackie’s brother Mack is a supportive friend, coming to games and showing genuine interest in Jackie’s achievements. As far as acting goes, the other, less significant, characters do not shine. In particular, what I assume to be the Athletic Director at UCLA is more than boring in his role, and one of the baseball commentators is terribly monotonous.
Cinematography, while primitive by today’s standards, does seem revolutionary for its time. Different camera angles and ways of showing the story make this sixty year old film watchable. In one scene that caught my eye, the camera shows the commentator calling the last out of a game—Jackie is credited with the put-out—instead of showing Robinson actually make the play. Music also plays a part in this movie. While we do not hear Top 40 hits, we do hear music that expresses the emotions of each scene. One scene in particular, in which a minor league game is cancelled because of Jackie’s presence on the ball field, the music sounds similar to that of the popular Darth Vader theme. Music like this catches the audience’s ear and lets them know how they are supposed to feel.
While the acting in this vintage classic is sub-par, the cinematography, music, and nostalgia of the film make it worth watching. Whenever a person plays him or herself in a film, it makes any film watchable. Jackie Robinson doesn’t fail miserably as an actor (think Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in Safe at Home), which makes this even more valuable as a movie. Also, although each aspect of Robinson’s life is shown only briefly (the movie covered about 25 years, but lasted only 77 minutes), the film gave the audience a full appreciation of his accomplishments. In the final scene, Jackie testifies for freedom in Washington, giving a great speech about equality of opportunity. As the movie ends, we see the same little boy shown in the beginning, and the narrator,
speaking of Jackie, tells us that this “is not his victory alone,” that this is a victory for all people, for America. This film is a classic, not only in baseball terms but in humanitarian terms as well, and I recommend it for all people, black or white.