Jackie Robinson: An Officer and Gentleman
The Heroic Story of Jackie Robinson Comes to the Screen
Last night I went to see 42, the story of Jackie Robinson smashing the color bar in baseball, which was then the most popular sport in the nation and affectionately called “the great American pastime.” It was at once an uplifting and a depressing experience. The story on the screen – which provided us a poignant peek into the life of one of the greatest men of what Tom Borkaw has declared “greatest generation” in American history – was inspiring. But the fact that I was watching the movie in a big IMAX theater in Times Square and there was all of seven people in the theater, none of whom were black alas, was troubling. I wondered if it was yet another instance of young black people failing to take advantage of opportunities that only the most optimistic and visionary members of my generation dared even dream of.
I was saved from lapsing into despair only because it was 10:20 on a Wednesday night, so it was not the ideal time to count heads. Perhaps it would have been different if it were earlier in the day, or a weekend, I sure hoped so. Hence I decided to check the box office performance of the movie, although I wondered if there was a break-down of ticket sales by race. My anxiety was considerably relieved when I discovered that 42 led all movies in ticket sales last weekend, grossing over 27 million dollars, astonishingly beating out “Scary Movie” at the box office. Hence what anxiety remains is due to the fact that I have yet to see a racial breakdown on the paying customers.
Forty Two is not a bio-pic in the truest sense, because it seeks not to tell the story of Jackie Robinson’s life, or even his entire baseball career. Rather it focuses on the trials and tribulations of his entry into major league baseball. Thus the movie is confined to telling the story of his first season, in which he goes from a despised interloper in “America’s game” to Rookie of the Year. But even so the movie is about two hours long and provides us an incisive look at the state of race relations in American society as reflected in baseball during the 1940’s.
Well written and directed by the Brian Helgeland, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay L.A. Confidential, the movie takes particular care in visually recreating the historical milieu in accurate detail. Utilizing newspaper clippings, news film footage, thoughtfully designed sets,period costumes, automobiles, architecture – including some stunning shots of the now defunct Ebbets Field, home to the Brooklyn Dodgers – we are transported back in time.
All of these things are enhanced by the selection of background music. Here we see the power of Ralph Ellison’s observation: “Music gives resonance to memory,” as we time travel through history on the swinging blues music that provided the background sound to the drama of Afro-American life. Curiously enough, the most representative song for this movie is never utilized: Louis Jordan’s anthem: “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball.”
But after the contribution of all these ingredients are taken into account however, Shakespeare’s observation still holds true: “The play is the thing.” Given the complexity of the issues and how they influenced the personal relations between characters, writing a script that could tell this story with any degree of authenticity was no walk in the park. Although I have some issues with the script, which I shall return to later, the writer/ director was wise to tell this tale as a love story.
Boseman and Beharie
As Jackie and Rachel
Throughout the movie it is clear that the main source of Jackie’s strength and inspiration to succeed is his love for the beautiful, brilliant, gutsy Rachel. An elegant educated lady of color like my mother and aunts, Rachel grew up in southern California in a middle class black family, and like Jackie, she was a graduate of UCLA. Self-confident and strong, Rachel was Jackie’s rock in those trying times; his life-long partner and the principal force keeping his legacy alive today as an energetic senior citizen, who is going into her centenary decade. In fact, she was a consultant on this movie from its inception.
The film was well cast. All the actors seemed born to their roles, especially their casting of Rachel and Jackie. Movingly played by Chadwick Boseman and Nichole Beharie, we get a glimpse of black love and family life rarely seen on the movie screen. It their portrayal of the young Jackie and Rachel I see may own mother and father, my aunts and uncles. In them we see the true beauty, unshakable dignity, and heroic optimism of that generation of Afro-Americans…whom I insist was the greatest of the greatest generation. Boeseman has the ebony complexion, handsome face and sculpted physique of Jackie Robinson, and Nicole Beharie embodies the strength, charm, beauty and intelligence of Rachel – whom I met when she was 87 and the lady was still a paragon of feminine elegance and grace….and at 90 she is actively managing a scholarship program for underprivileged youths..
This movie literally traverses the terrain of my youth: Florida, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. Hence when Jackie went to Florida for spring training I recognized the community. Since Jackie was denied accommodations in the city’s many hotels due to his rich ebony complexion, a sure measure of the pathological character of southern Anglo-Saxon culture, he was forced to stay in private homes in the Afro-American community. The Brooklyn Dodgers arranged accommodations for him in the black community with the assistance of a sportswriter with the nationally distributed black newspaper, the Pittsburg Courier. Who was a major character in the film.
Everybody I knew in Florida subscribed to the Pittsburg Courier when I was a boy, so the whole thing was like taking a trip in a time machine. And the graceful affluent Afro-Americans with big fine houses of many rooms who boarded Jackie, could well have been some of my family or neighbors. The same was true of the graceful eloquent middle class Afro-Americans who inhabited them. These were black communities where children could chase fire flies, or play hide and seek at night, without being afraid of catching a stray bullet.
Although everybody had a gun back in the day, they were far too civilized to employ them in resolving trivial disputes with their neighbors. But the same was true of many black communities in the North and West, because all these communities were run by the “Talented Tenth,” the educated class of Afro-Americans that Dr. WEB Dubois charged with leading “the mass of Negroes away from the worst in their own and other races.”
This is a movie that all Americans should see – especially our young people who know so little of this nation’s history – because it reminds of us the way we were, and thus helps to clarify who we are now, and how we became this way. Historical reflection is a necessary exercise for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the problems of the present. The cultural critic and historian Harold Cruse once observed that Americans are “anti-historical,” and nothing demonstrates this better than the fate of “period piece” movies. Alas, those films dealing with Afro-American historical issues and personalities usually perform the worse financially.
It is a striking irony, because there is a persistent charge by many thoughtful black Americans that the motion picture industry is only out to defame us…when all they are really interested in is making money, and lots of it. This was once true, in fact the first hit movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” which is hailed as a path breaking film was a viciously racist attack on the humanity of Afro-Americans. And for most of the 20th century the dominant image of Afro-Americans on the big silver screen, from which most white Americans formed their conception of black folk in a racially segregated society, was the comic domestic buffoon – like Stepin Fetchit, Eddie Rochester Anderson, Hattie McDaniels, Ethel Waters, Mantan Moorland. et al. We were always depicted as servants to white people, and just tickled to death to be catering to the every whim of “Miss Ann and Mr. Charley,” who were more often than not smug, condescending, jiveass motherfuckers.
Playing the fool for white folks
Teaching Missy the social Graces
Some will say that the performance of Django Unchained at the box office, and the Academy Awards, discredits my argument regarding period movies featuring Afro-Americans. To which I would respond: Django was not an actual historical figure and it was an action movie with a revenge motif that had but little relation to black culture –despite the fact that the historical record supports the possibility that such a character might well have existed . Django appealed to the general American fascination with guns and violence that Quentin Tarrantino has so adroitly exploited in his other movies. It was a replay of a successful formula the director profitably employed in the Jewish revenge flick “Inglorious Bastards.” I enjoyed both movies.
But there are other movies dealing with historical themes that I like better. The Great Debaters, Miracle at St. Anna, Malcolm X, Red Tails, Glory, Lincoln, Lady Sings the Blues, Ray, The five Heart Beats, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, etc.” Forty Two belongs in that distinguished company. All of these movies except “Heart Beats” are based on real people and their stories. And this makes them invaluable artistic takes on reality in a very powerful medium.
The Original Red Tails!
Brave Bronze Warriors who Never Lost a Plane
Red Tails: The Movie
There are various ways of relating history. The methodology of professional historians is unquestionably the most reliable because of its rigorous rules of evidence, but telling history in dramas, movies and novels is the most exciting and effective. The narratives of artists can achieve a higher level of emotional power and popular appeal than the scholar because they enjoy “poetic license.” That means that they can decide how they wish to tell the story; what they will magnify or ignore among the objective facts. Furthermore, the literary artist can also manipulate time through the employment of symbols.
However the virtues of the artists are scorned by the historian, who is allowed to take no liberty with the facts, and in constructing a historical narrative the facts must be weighed by their relevance rather than their dramatic qualities. This often assures that the scholarly historical narrative will be a boring affair when compared to the romanticized narratives of the novelist or dramatist, even as they often distort historical reality. That’s why literary men were driven from the profession with great fanfare as the study of history become professionalized. However the great historical novelist or playwright will consult the works of historians to get their basic facts straight, or interrogate the historical records themselves.
I suspect that the writer of this script consulted both…and he had a living archive in Rachel. Since Rachel has signed off on the film I shall not attempt to be more royal than the queen. But I cannot help believing that Spike Lee would have made a better movie. I say this for several reasons: He has been trying to raise the money to make a movie on Jackie for around 20 years.
He is an avid baseball fan, a die- hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and a devoted student of the career of Jackie Robinson. Spike was wearing number 42 long before it became the fashionable thing to do. And on top of all this Spike makes great movies about sports. His film “He Got Game,” in which he coaxed a great acting performance out of NBA star Ray Ray, was just voted “The Greatest Basketball Movie of All Time,” by a panel of writers cum sports fans on ESPN.
However when the panel chose “Raging Bull” as the best boxing movie, Spike said he thought the movie was good but flawed, because they only gave Sugar Ray Robinson – “the greatest fighter pound for pound in the history of boxing” – a cameo. Spike thought he should have been a more fully developed character. I agree. For one thing, it would have enriched the movie. I am sure that Spike was thinking about the rich cultural milieu in which Sugar Ray Robinson dwelled in Harlem, where he owned a fabulous night club and could often be found on stage playing drums or performing a tap dance routine.
The point is that white Americans do not know enough about us to paint the kind of richly detailed portrait of Afro-American culture important movies about black life and character deserve. After all, great African-American personalities don’t just invent themselves; they are products of a culture. Placing Afro-American characters in the proper cultural context has been one of the great achievements of Spike Lee as a cinematic artist. In this movie we never saw what Jackie and Rachel did for recreation among their own people i.e. what kinds of parties and clubs they went to. Were they graceful on the dance floor and loved to dance like most Afro-Americans? We don’t know these things because we mostly view them outside of an Afro-American communal context.
There is also the question of getting inside the character’s head. Few in the viewing audience either know or care who the screenwriter and director is, and even if they do it means little to them. But these are the people who control the creative functions; which is to say that all the lines that come out of the actor’s mouth, as well as how they should be recited, is controlled by the screenwriter and the director. Hence the actors are glorified versions of a ventriloquist dummy.
This is not to decry the skills great actors bring to the portrayal of their roles. But the character that emerges on careen has been created and directed by others – the actor is the vehicle. Hence the problem that Harold Cruse identified as the central contradiction hampering the development of an authentic Afro-American dramatic art – the dependence of Afro-American actors on material and direction from white creative sources, remains true – although considerably less so than in 1965 when Cruse wrote his critique.
One only need look at Spike’s documentary film on the Hall of Fame running back, “Jim Brown: All American,” in order to get a good idea how Spike would have handled Jackie. Of all the commentary I have heard about Jim Brown, only Spike dealt with Jim as a sex symbol for white women and how that affected his career in football and later as an actor. White guys either didn’t see that, or just didn’t want to address it. The emphasis he put on Jim Brown’s descriptions of his father as a big good looking guy who was a fine dresser and great dancer. Most white film makers would have concentrated on the fact that he abandoned Jim and his mother and left it as that…just another black deadbeat dad story.
Hence in 42, I am certain that Spike would have included scenes where Jackie and his friends spoke candidly about what they thought of the white guys who he was competing against. Not just what the white guys thought of him; which is what we get in this movie. Although the film does an excellent job of explicating what Dodger Owner Branch Rickey thought –brilliantly played by Harrison Ford in what could be an Academy Award performance – we never see Jackie sitting around with his peers, which included World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, and the great Sugar Ray Robinson, candidly assessing his white teammates as: “Bitch ass peckerwood motherfuckers!”
The Real Jackie with Branch Rickey….
….and their movie counterparts.
Yet the most racist of his reluctant teammates were all ignorant white trash compared to this well-educated, eloquent, elegant officer and gentleman who had mastered four sports at UCLA while earning a degree. And the conventional wisdom among Robinson aficionados is that baseball was not even his best sport; he was better at football and basketball but chose baseball because it was the only sport where he could make a living at the time by playing in the Negro Leagues. How could such a superior man like this not have been contemptuous of his po dumb cracker antagonist?
I see Jackie as playing a game with whites that originated as a survival mechanism during slavery times and is expressed in the ubiquitous slave ditty: “Got one mind for white folks to see…got another mind I know is really me…and they don’t know my mind.” If I had written the script, or consulted on it, I would have had a scene where Jackie recited that Ditty, either as an internal monologue or in conversation with black fiends. And I would have found a way to have the black reporter, a literate man who was certainly familiar with the works of our great black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, recite this poem while reflecting on Jackie’s predicament:
“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,-
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties
Why should the world be otherwise
In counting all our tears and sighs
Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask”
The wisdom reflected in the folk saying, which is a mirror into the soul of the black masses, is given literary expression in the artifice of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose parents were slaves and thus rooted in the wisdom and folkways of the common people. And this wisdom certainly informed Jackie Robinson’s approach to dealing with whites who continued to monopolize power just as they had done since slavery times. Had these quotes been presented in this way, which was very easy to do, it would have given a cultural context to Jackie’s behavior in dealing with whites; we would have recognized that his actions were rooted in the marrow of Afro-American tradition.
But far more grievous is the fact that the brief summation of Jackie Robinson’s life at the end of this impressive movie neglects both his pioneering role as a black corporate executive with the Chock Full of Nuts chain, and his impressive history as a Civil Rights activist and close comrade of Dr. Martian Luther King, marching by his side on some of his most dangerous campaigns. One such campaign was my home town St. Augustine Florida in 1964, where local white supremacist in the Ancient City Gun Club led redneck demagogue “Hoss” Manucie was threatening murder and mayhem. How could deeds of such gravitas receive virtually no attention? I’d bet my bottom dollar that Spike Lee would have found a way to display all of Jackie’s virtues…which go far beyond the baseball diamond. Alas, despite its considerable virtues, we never see the full measure of the man in this flick.
Jackie and Dr. King
Comrades in Struggle
All of this begs the question: how did Brian Helgeland find the opportunity to write and direct a movie on this iconic Afro-American figure, when a film maker of spike Lee’s enormous gifts could not find the backing for the project after a twenty year quest? This is no picayune issue. Harold Cruse argued that the theft of “Negro cultural ingredients” by white creative and performing artists has made the black artist the odd man out.
This is because institutionalized racism and the ideology of white supremacy, coupled with white ownership and control of “the cultural apparatus,” will insure that black artists will only be allowed to write and direct Afro-American productions. There is no chance that they will be selected to write and direct a major movie on an iconic white historic figure. In looking at how the movie 42 was made we see the advantages that race and class, and how it conspires against the black artist and places them at a disadvantage even when the issues is mining his cultural inventory.
Reduced to its simply terms, “it’s all about the Benjamins” as the rappers say, or as the most successful black movie mogul ever, Tyler Perry, says “It’s about the Golden Rule; he who has the gold rules!” The making of 42 is testifies to the truth of Tyler statement as a candid of reality in the film business. According to statements Brian Hegleman as made in the press he had never thought about making a movie on Jackie Robinson until he received a call out of the blue from Thomas Tull, a financier with deep pockets.
A Jackie Robinson fan, Hull had persuaded Rachel Robinson that a major movie on the life of her late husband was long overdue and offered to finance it. It Tull called Hegleman to write and direct the movie. That’s how the deal was done. And Spike Lee, a great film maker who ought to have several Oscars for his writing and directing, missed his chance to define this African American hero on the silver screen…which audience around the world will see.
Ironically, the most compelling lesson from this movie has to do with its making rather than the onscreen performances, as splendid as they are. Despite the vast distance Afro-Americans have travelled since Jackie Robinson broke into major league baseball, from the outhouse to the White House; in business it’s still good to be white – especially the movie business. Yet after all is said and done, 42 remains a very good movie that every black parent should take their children to see!
Jackie Robinson Givin Some Skin to his Peeps
The Pride of Afro-America!
Two Lovely, Elegant, Brilliant, First Ladies!
Michelle showers accolades on Rachel
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
April 19, 2013