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Jackie Robinson' goes deep

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Ken Burns documentary a thorough portrait

Baseball has always been a game that places a premium on history. The past is vitally important, whether we're talking about all-time great players or the various statistics that allow us to compare the best of the best across the eras.

However, there are some figures in the game's history that transcend their on-field talents that transcend the game entirely.

Master documentarian Ken Burns who has long since established his filmmaking bona fides when it comes to baseball has tackled one such transcendent figure in his newest film 'Jackie Robinson.'

Whether you're a baseball fanatic or someone who couldn't care less about the sport, you likely know the name Jackie Robinson. As the first player to take the field in violation of baseball's longstanding and virulent 'gentlemen's agreement' the one that kept people of color off Major League Baseball rosters Robinson was more than just an exceptional ballplayer (though he was that). He was a symbol, a beacon of hope for his race in a time just after World War II when African-Americans were still treated as second-class citizens or worse.

Robinson grew up hard, but translated a preternatural athleticism he lettered in football, basketball and track along with baseball at UCLA and there were plenty who believed that baseball was Robinson's third-best sport into a better life.

Of course, the culture of the time left him fighting prejudices all along the way including his stint in the military, where his friendship with Joe Louis led to progress in the realm of allowing black candidates into Officer Candidate School. This was also the period of his infamous court-martial, though he was acquitted.

The year after his discharge 1945 Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League baseball team. But it was the next year that marked the biggest changes in direction of Robinson's life. In 1946, he married his wife Rachel. He also started playing for the Montreal Royals, a minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

And then, on April 15, 1947, MLB's color barrier was broken.

What followed was a 10-year big league career that, while marked with plenty of pitfalls and prejudices, culminated in the Hall of Fame. And make no mistake Robinson was enshrined on his own merits; his career was enough regardless of his status as a pioneer.

He found plenty of success outside the game as well. He became a successful businessman and broke new ground for African-Americans in media realm as well. In many ways, he was a beloved figure.

But his place in the civil rights realm seemed to be in almost constant shift. He was an early proponent of the NAACP and a vocal supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. However, he also became a supporter of Richard Nixon's 1960 run for president. As the nature of the movement became more militant, Robinson was viewed in some circles as part of the establishment; some even referred to him as an 'Uncle Tom.'

Jackie Robinson passed away in October of 1972 at the age of 53. In the years since, he has become even more of an important figure in modern American history. So much so that in 1997, MLB universally retired his number 42. Since 2004, MLB has observed 'Jackie Robinson Day' every April 15 the anniversary of Robinson's first game in the bigs. On that day, all players wear Robinson's number, ensuring that each generation will be reminded of what he accomplished.

No one brings history to life quite like Ken Burns. And his obvious passion for the game of baseball helps ensure that his films on that particular subject truly shine. 'Jackie Robinson' is another fine example, an engaging snapshot of a life important not just to baseball, but to his country.

The approximately four-hour runtime might seem off-putting to the casual viewer, which is understandable that's a significant time commitment. But that time allows Burns to delve deep, giving us a full narrative that moves beyond Robinson's (admittedly fascinating) years with the Dodgers. It's a chance to see that part of it, yes but also an opportunity to learn more about the man he was before he came to Brooklyn and the man he became after he left.

It's the exploration of those later years that really brings this film home. Many people have at least a vague knowledge of Jackie Robinson the pioneering baseball player. However, relatively few know about the impact Robinson had after his playing days were over.

Through it all, the impression is of a man of great decency and principle. While not everyone may have agreed with his methods and choices, there's no doubt that Robinson was forever seeking paths toward racial justice and equality. Fighting for the right to become an officer, stealing home 19 times in his big league career, starting one of the most successful African-American banks all of these things were indicative of the man's unshakeable pride and self-belief.

'Jackie Robinson' is ideal for any baseball fan. It's a marvelous overview of Robinson's life suitable for the casual viewer, but there are some fascinating tidbits for the more knowledgeable fan as well. It is a thoughtful and compelling about a thoughtful and compelling man another home run from Ken Burns.


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