KEN BURNS ON “JACKIE ROBINSON”: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

ken burns jackie robinson

JACKIE ROBINSON combines two topics of paramount importance to Burns: race and baseball.

KEN BURNS ON “JACKIE ROBINSON”: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

By Abbie Bernstein

Ken Burn’s two-part documentary JACKIE ROBINSON, made with his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband David McMann, premieres on PBS over two nights, Monday, April 11, and Tuesday, April 12. Burns thought that he had already done a fairly thorough job in his eleven-part (nine in 1994, two more in 2010) PBS series BASEBALL of exploring Robinson, the first black baseball player in the major leagues.

“Jackie was the center, the whole moral skeletal structure of the original BASEBALL series,” Burns explains. The renowned documentarian is sitting down with a reporter in an empty hospitality room at Pasadena’s Langham-Huntington Hotel prior to doing a Q&A session with Robinson’s widow, the now 93-year-old Rachel Robinson, for the Television Critics Association. “He was in every episode, in the introduction, obviously, but also anticipating his arrival, and then we did his burden, and his early childhood, and all the sort of stuff we cover in this film, and he died in the last episode.”

Then, Burns says, he was approached by Rachel Robinson several years after BASEBALL aired on PBS. [Rachel Robinson said] “‘I want you to do a film on Jackie,’ and I said what I just said. And she said, ‘But it should be standalone.’ I said, ‘Of course, but I’ve got all these other projects, I do my own stuff. I’m working on two or three at a time, we’re planned out for the next ten years.’”

This is true – when Burns appears during PBS’ portion of the Television Critics Association press tour, they generally give him two panels: one to discuss his immediately upcoming documentary and one called PIPELINE, to talk about everything else he’s working on. Right now, Burns is in some stage of production on DEFYING THE NAZIS, JACK JOHNSON and VIETNAM, to name a few.

Further recounting his conversation with Rachel Robinson, Burns continues. “’By all means, if somebody comes up, and other companies come up, and want to do something, you should do it, and God bless, and that would be wonderful.’ And two companies did, and both of them she got rid of, because she wanted to wait for me. So we finally found some daylight, and I had just finished THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE film with my daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, the filmmaker David McMann. So the three of us directed and produced this [JACKIE ROBINSON] together, and it’s been great to dive deeper and just shed the barnacles of sentimentality and nostalgia that have grown up around Jackie, and I think weigh him down. He’s much more important than the mythological Christ figure that he’s become.”

Since Burns was approached by Rachel Robinson, rather than having to persuade her of the project’s value, is it fair to assume the filmmakers had access to every existing piece of documentation?

“We could not have done it without her,” Burns replies. “The most important reason is that she gave us her time to give us the three interviews that we did over the course of a couple of years with her. Her foundation, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, opened up the vaults, which I like to imagine they would have done for anybody, and would do for anybody coming through. Getting the word out is important. And I love this woman. She’s an amazing human being, as you’ll see. She looks about seventy. She’s ninety-three, she has all her marbles, including some of mine, and I want them back,” Burns laughs. “She’s a very impressive human being, and is key, as you’ll see in the film.

“I would not have done this, I think, without Rachel saying, ‘I need you to do this.’ And that’s unusual, because usually, all of our films are self-initiated. They come from within. We’re not hired by anybody. And she didn’t hire us. After she fired those other two companies, and I said, ‘Rachel, I can do it. But the only thing is, you can’t fire us. I do this …’ She said, ‘I get it.’”

Burns says the JACKIE ROBINSON documentary took several years to make, “As is always our case. Because we want to get it right, and there’s often, in any situation, no matter how big a subject, like CIVIL WAR or VIET NAM, that I’m working on now, there are lots of conflicting views, and you have to go to the most recent scholarship and even triangulate with that. So for us, it takes many, many years to make even, for us, a relatively short film. This is two parts, it is four hours.”

As to what is covered within those four hours, Burns elaborates, “We’re exploding lots of myths. The very famous thing, immortalized in statues and children’s books, of [white baseball player] Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie when they went to Cincinatti, where there was particular and virulent racism, and Pee Wee was from Kentucky, just across the river, never happened. It’s white people wanting to have, no pun intended, skin in the game. And [Reese embracing Jackson] was never reported in the white press, never reported in the black press, which would have blown it up, done ten related articles in every single issue of every black paper across the country, not mentioned by Jackie in his autobiography, but promoted by Red Barber, the white Southern broadcaster for the Dodgers, and others who wrote about it later. It’s one of those myths that just didn’t happen.

“There’s much more interesting stuff about Pee Wee in our film, good and bad. There’s a celebration of his birthday at Ebbets Field where they run up the Confederate flag, and the only person in the world who went crazy was Jackie Robinson. He said, ‘The Confederacy’s been dead. Don’t do this.’ So it prefigures all the stuff we’re talking about today. Today’s headlines, the Trayvon Martin stories, the Ferguson stories, the driving while black, the stop and frisk, the integrated swimming pools, the Confederate flag, the burning of black churches, the killing of black kids – it’s all in this film. So the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“William Faulkner said it much better than I ever could – ‘History is not “was,” but “is.”’ The Bible says, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’ Human nature remains the same, and we superimpose that human nature over the random chaos of events. And so we can perceive themes and repetitions and echoes. ‘History doesn’t repeat itself,’ Mark Twain is supposed to have said, ‘it rhymes.’ I like that. And so in every film, it rhymes with the present. The PROHIBITION film is about single-issue political campaigns that metastasized – demonization of immigrants, smear campaigns during presidential elections, a Tea Party-like group that feels they’ve lost control of their country and want to take it back – that’s the story of Prohibition. It isn’t just gangsters and flappers. That’s the story we told. So in every film it’s like that.”

JACKIE ROBINSON combines two topics of paramount importance to Burns: race and baseball. “Baseball’s the greatest sport that’s ever been invented, period, full stop. I like many other sports, I’m not dissing any, I’m just saying, they don’t compare. It’s the only sport that’s really accompanied almost every decade of our national narrative. So it mirrors us in important ways. Nobody’s getting concussed [unlike in football], and that’s usually important. But on the baseball field, what happens is a kind of meritocracy. And that permits baseball to lead rather than follow American history.

“So on April 15, 1947, when Jack Roosevelt Robinson, grandson of a slave, made his way to first base at Ebbets Field, Martin Luther King was a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. The military was not integrated at that point. There were not lunch counter demonstrations, except ones he’d done as a teenager. Rosa Parks was many, many years away from refusing to give up her seat – something Jackie had done three years earlier in 1944, eleven years before her, at Fort Hood, Texas, for which he got court-martialed, and got acquitted. And there was no Brown vs. Board of Education. He opened the door, and that had to do with the symbolism of the game of baseball, and its essential meritocracy, that if he could play, he could convince even the Southern racists on the Brooklyn Dodgers, which he did, that maybe you could make changes. If you’re a Brooklyn Dodger fan, and you’re a racist, you’ve got three choices, right? You could switch to another team, but Jackie’s just the handwriting on the wall. You could give up baseball, but then you’ve lost the players and the greatest game ever invented. Or you could change.”

As far as documentaries that deal with race in America, Burns laughs, “Saying ‘race in America’ is almost being redundant. I remember, I was promoting THE ROOSEVELTS and somebody raised their hand earnestly and said, ‘Franklin and Eleanor had a complicated marriage.’ And I said, ‘Complicated marriage is redundant.’ [Racial inequality] is our national sin. We invented human liberty, and we held people as slaves at the same time. That has a half-life that’s almost unacceptably long.”

Most of Burns’ work deals with race – indeed, he tries to figure out which of his documentaries do not. “HORATIO’S DRIVE doesn’t deal with race, FRANK LLOYD WRIGHTdoesn’t deal with race,  THE DUST BOWL doesn’t deal with race so much.”

As for Burns’ 2009 six-part miniseries THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA, he says, “It’s filled with race. The first protectors in the parks were the Buffalo Soldiers, the African-American cavalry men. And they were black people telling white people what they could and couldn’t do in the 1870s. That’s a big deal. It’s always there, it’s always there. I don’t go looking for it [as a subject], it’s there, I would say second only to a struggle to understand the meaning of freedom in America. And that is tied into race as well, meaning, the tension between individual freedom, what I want to do, and collective freedom, what we need to do, this has been an American theme, and race accompanies it. Because [Thomas Jefferson], who wrote our catechism, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ when he wrote that sentence, owned more than a hundred human beings. And he didn’t see the hypocrisy or the contradiction, or more importantly, he didn’t see fit to free any one of them in his lifetime, and set in motion, symbolically, an American narrative that will always be [relevant].”

What did Burns learn researching JACKIE ROBINSON that he didn’t already know from his work on BASEBALL? “Everything.” As an example, he cites what he sees as the over-emphasis that popular culture has placed on then-Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who brought Robinson into the major leagues. “If Jackie is Christ-like in a superficial way, turning the other cheek [when he is verbally and physically abused], then Branch Rickey [seen as] like a god who reaches down and touches his finger to Jackie. And Branch Rickey is hugely important, but I think we’ve got him [in the documentary] at the level that he should be. And every single step, I think every single paragraph of this script represents for us new things, and the deep dive we were able to do visually represents new things. We’ve got [some humor from the Robinsons] that can speak to how troubling it was. Humor is a way sometimes to abolish all of that bad stuff.

“You want to have this idea that you’re going to tell a good story. And a good story to us means that you’re going to have a very deep dive into the material, that you’re going to try to engage the stuff that’s been left behind. The black press [played] a hugely important role in promoting an African-American in major league baseball. So [did] the left-wing and even communist press in the United States. So [did] left-wing politicians, including the progressive Republican mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia. All of these [some people] more conveniently like to set aside, so that Branch Rickey says, ‘You, my son, are going to do this great experiment, but only if you can turn your cheek for three years.’ Which is what happened, it’s a great scene, and it’s in our original BASEBALL series, it’s in here. But there are other forces that are putting this together. It’s the end of World War II, a black communist councilman from Harlem is out at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx with posters, with the whole crowd, protesting, pictures of dead black soldiers – ‘They can stop bullets, why not balls?’, showing a black baseball player. This stuff is in the air. It isn’t just one Moses.”

The importance of Rachel Robinson to her husband’s life and career is also highlighted. Burns, who got President Obama and his wife to participate in the documentary notes, “You will see, again, there’s no Jackie without Rachel. There’s no Barack Obama without Michelle in their interview. The parallels of a black couple, trying to withstand the storms of what happens when you are the first, is pretty moving.”

Has Burns found that making documentaries has become easier over time?

“I hope we’re getting better. I like the early films, but I look and see there’s a kind of something that I’m doing differently. It’s not easier, because the fundraising is always a chore, and it’s a chore to make this stuff, to discats_120X600till this. I live in a tiny little village in New Hampshire, and I have for thirty-seven years, and we make maple syrup there. It takes forty gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. That’s still the process of making a documentary film. It’s patience, and it’s not deciding [the shape of the material] in advance – a lot of folks will research for three weeks, or three months, and then write for three weeks or three months, and whatever is produced, that is written in stone, and then that informs the shooting and the editing.

“We never stop researching, and we never stop writing. And that makes our process, attenuates our process a little bit more, makes it a little bit harder, because we’re filming archives that we just love, not because they fit into that moment, and we’re writing stuff because it’s a good story, not worrying about whether there are pictures to show it. We’ll figure that out. And so we work really hard at doing it. I love my job. Here’s what it is – every project, literally, no exaggeration, is a million or more problems. But I do not see the word ‘problem’ as pejorative. I see it as friction that you’ve got to overcome, and that the joy of it is figuring out all of those problems – what image to use right here, what music to use right here, what to cut, who to interview, how to select that interview.”

What would Burns most like people to know about the JACKIE ROBINSON documentary?

“I just would like them to watch it, to understand that this is one of the most important human beings in all of American history, and the story that we have to tell about someone who’s relatively well-known is deeper, more complicated and more interesting than anything you could possibly believe.”

Interview By
Abbie Bernstein

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Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein

Abbie Bernstein is an entertainment journalist, fiction author and filmmaker. Besides Buzzy Multimedia, her work currently appears in Assignment X.
Abbie Bernstein