“Every step forward for our people has started a fight somewhere.”
This is one of the many mantras spoken to Jackie Robinson in The Jackie Robinson Story, just as he breaks the color barrier in America’s favorite pastime.
January 30 would have marked Robinson’s 100th birthday. The Georgia-bred sportsman is known by many to be the first African American Major League Baseball Player of the modern era. Long before Chadwick Boseman stepped onto home plate in the role of Jackie Robinson in the film 42, the famed baseball player showed no one can portray Jackie Robinson better than himself in 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story.
Directed by Alfred E. Green and written by Arthur Mann and Lawrence Taylor, The Jackie Robinson Story was released three years after the titular trailblazer desegregated Major League Baseball on April 15, 1947.
Long before Michael Jordan stepped onto the basketball court with a pack of Looney Toons in the 1996 film Space Jam, Jackie Robinson patented the trend of athletes portraying themselves on the big screen. Back in the 50s, this type of film casting was taboo and relatively unheard of. It would have been relatively easy for Green to get in actor like Sidney Poitier, who gave a magnetic performance as a Black nurse tending to racist white patients at a county hospital in No Way Out, in the role. In hindsight, it was a wise choice to have Robinson at the front and center of his own story.
In his acting debut, Robinson gives a performance that showcases his earnestness and composure. None of this is more evident in the earlier scenes of the film, when his quest to became a basketball coach is met with deaf ears from prospective colleges, who seemingly balk at the idea of having a Black man at their institutions. The central plot of The Jackie Robinson Story centers on the player’s eventual entrance into the Major Leagues when he is recruited to play for the Montreal Royals, the International League farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
This is where Robinson’s internal conflict comes into play. At the request of Major League Baseball president Branch Rickey (Minor Watson), Robinson must temper his desire to fight back against the eventual racism he endures.
“No matter what happens on the ball field, you can’t fight back,” Rickey says. “That’s going to be the hard part. You can’t fight back.” Rickey’s request relies heavily on Number 42. Robinson’s expressions are clear cut, especially during a scene when he and his wife are confronted by a trio of racist white baseball fans on his way. Through clenched teeth, closed fists and rage in his eyes, Robinson excuses grace under fire, both in his performance on screen and off the screen.
Black love functions as a much needed balm from the racism Robinson faces from fellow teammates and baseball fans. Ruby Dee is equal parts valiant and tender in her role as Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife and college sweetheart. Her scenes with Robinson serve as one of the film’s lighthearted moments, particularly during a scene in which her character is giving her husband a massage after a baseball game.
While Boseman’s effort to play the iconic figure in 42 was admirable, Robinson telling his own story with his own words and his own image is the most powerful representation of the legend on screen.