Jackie Robinson Story and Other Anti-Racism Films

The Jackie Robinson StoryThe Jackie Robinson Story came out in 1950, and, as a selling point, starred the actual Robinson. It’s dated now, largely because it was pretty low-budget, but you have to consider what the movie was for its time.

Naturally movies were made by and for African Americans. Most were independently financed. The major movie studios didn’t want anything to do with addressing racism (today, they give themselves awards for movies which do address it, only 100 years or so after those movies should have been bankrolled.)

Other Anti-Racism Films

There was Fritz Lang’s 1936 Fury, starring Spencer Tracy as a white guy attacked by a lynch mob. Lang was a German whose films impressed Hitler so much, the Führer asked Lang to be his personal #1 filmmaker. Lang got the hell out of Germany. Fury was his first American movie, and while it’s technically about a white guy getting lynched, there are so many African American performers in background roles that audiences knew what was being discussed.

You had The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943, along the same lines. Then 1947 gave us Gentleman’s Agreement, about antisemitism. (You know the old Groucho Marx line “I’d never want to belong to a club that would have me for a member?” Groucho was talking about all-Jewish clubs, because even famous celebrities like him couldn’t join the racist ones.) And Broken Arrow, about the mistreatment of Native Americans, the same year Jackie Robinson came out.

“You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.”

The best of all old-Hollywood movies about racism is Bad Day At Black Rock, from 1955. Spencer Tracy — Again! — is a one-armed war veteran who uproots some desert railroad stop by asking questions about what happened to his Japanese-American war buddy. In a great scene, he’s bullied at a lunch counter by a local thug (play by Ernest Borgnine), and delivers one of my favorite-ever lines: “You’re not only wrong, you’re wrong at the top of your voice.”

The Jackie Robinson Story

The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950, broke some real ground. It didn’t only depict Robinson being abused by bigot fans and resented by bigot teammates. It mentioned how African Americans, even those with college degrees (a big deal in those days!) couldn’t get decent jobs. It showed segregation, which movies at the time just didn’t do.

Is Robinson an actor? No. But he doesn’t embarrass himself, either. He’s a little wooden, but that’s not unusual for low-budget movies. His laconic delivery works well in context, since the player Robinson obviously had emotions he wasn’t permitted to express.

What dates the movie more than anything is, surprisingly, how the baseball scenes are directed. They’re terrible. Apparently due to budget constraints, most are shot from the same few angles. So you watch Robinson swing over and over and it becomes snooze-rific. Near the climax (which cheats time and space a little by inventing a pennant-clinching final game) there’s a shot from behind the catcher, showing Brooklyn in the background, and it’s jarringly exciting.

Jackie Robinson is in the public domain now, so you can watch it for free. Here’s one copy via the Internet Archive:


In the film, , Robinson is invited to speak before Congress because of his inspiring life story. This was not the case; he was asked to testify before the HUAC on whether singer Paul Robeson was a communist.

HUAC — the House Un-American Activities Committee — was responsible for a series of show trials in the 1950s, instituted as political props for several fear mongering politicians. The commies are gonna get us, see, so elect me! The most notorious of these fear mongers was Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who headed the Senate’s version of the HUAC — the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Robinson gave testimony, and did not turn over on Paul Robeson. Instead, he berated the anti-communist headhunters for demeaning the African American experience of constant racism. You can read part of Robinson’s speech here.

That same site has links to Robinson’s FBI files. Back when, if you said or did anything which offended FBI director J Edgar Hoover’s idea of pure patriotic 100% not-gay Americanism, the FBI would start surveillance on you. To prove that these dark days are over (!) you can now see some creepy FBI files on the Bureau’s website.

Aeschylus and the Paris Attacks

AeschylusThe reactions to the attacks in Paris are very aggravating. I’m not talking about the sadness, the outrage, or even the fear. It is always sad when people die. And it is always outrageous when people are murdered. And I at least understand fear, even if this act shouldn’t elicit that response. The number of people who died yesterday in Paris from these attacks are about double the number of people in America killed with guns on any given day. The specifics don’t matter so much to me. It is all unnecessary death. It makes me sad that humans are this way. But it’s the shock that aggravates me.

I hear a lot of people who are just amazed that people would do this. “They must be crazy!” Maybe so. But I feel fairly certain that the way the terrorists see things, they are acting rationally. This wasn’t just some madman who ran into a shopping mall and started shooting people. This was a well planned operation. There were six coordinated attacks. It was a military style mission and I have little doubt that those who took part considered themselves soldiers in a noble fight.

“They raped our queen, so we raped their city, and we were right!” —Aeschylus

I know that we here in the US see a drone strike on a wedding party that kills 12 as an unfortunate mistake. I’m among them. I don’t think that anyone in the US military wants to kill innocent people who are celebrating one of our most important cultural signifiers. But that’s pretty easy for me to think. The perspective is certainly very different of the people in Yemen or Afghanistan or any number of other place where the skies are patrolled by our drones.

Roughly 2,500 years ago, Aeschylus wrote in his play Agamemnon, “They raped our queen, so we raped their city, and we were right!” This is the cycle of violence. When two groups go to war, they normally disagree about what the first offense was. Doubtless Priam would not have agreed that the first offense was the “rape” of Helen. So I have a hard time with people who are just shocked at the attacks in Paris. We are engaged in a “war on terror.” Do they think that the terrorists are just going hole up in a compound watching pornography like Osama bin Laden?

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, to see a CNN headline, US Officials Say No Known Threat to Homeland in Wake of Paris Attacks. The fact that Americans have to be constantly reassured that we are safe is pathetic. We spend roughly half of all the money the world spends on military. We are remarkably safe from all threats except maybe obesity. Yet we still quake in our boots whenever a highly publicized terrorist attack occurs.

According to the Global Terrorism Database, on 13 November 2014, there were 41 terrorist attacks. At least 81 people were killed and at least 62 were injured. But these occurred in places like Iraq, Philippines, Ukraine. And the biggest attack (in terms of death) was “only” 20. CNN didn’t need to assure Americans that they were safe on the same day last year. But if we are going to be afraid, we should be afraid every day, because this stuff happens every day. But it hardly happens at all here.

We are part of this pattern of violence. The worst American delusion is that we just mind our own business and bad things happen to us. We are never just minding our own business. The United States is the most meddlesome country on the planet. And we are far from perfect; just check out Thursday’s Anniversary Post. But I don’t expect us to be; and I don’t think anyone else does either. The real problem is that we do not use our enormous power to limit violence. We are not doing what is needed to reduce things like the horrific mass murders in Paris yesterday. We have allowed the Israel-Palestine conflict to fester for decades. We eagerly destabilized one of the most important countries in the Middle East. And whether our global “war on terror” is creating terrorists faster than it is killing them is a matter of debate.

So be sad about yesterday’s deaths. Be outraged that terrorists decided to murder ordinary people just trying to live their lives. Be afraid that they are coming for us next. But don’t be surprised. “They raped our queen, so we raped their city, and we were right!”

Morning Music: Jesse Ferguson Original Songs

Jesse FergusonI wrote to Jesse Ferguson asking him if there was any video of him playing a whole set. He seemed to indicate that there wasn’t. It’s remarkable. He has released four albums and he is incredibly talented, but he appears to only partially support himself from performing. That’s not a slight. One of my all time favorite bands (and probably the best punk band ever), Minutemen, did music part time. But it is sad that someone of such talent isn’t a bigger deal. Of course, he’s young and I’m sure he will only become more beloved over time.

He must also do teaching, because he has a number of instructional videos online too. I watched his video on bar chords. It was interesting, because I learned bar chords just over the course of long and painful failures. But he really systematized it. A couple of time while watching it I thought, “Oh, that’s why I do that!” This is particularly interesting given that in most things, I am the king of systematization. But clearly, not in music. I suspect he is a good teacher.

So given that I don’t have a set to offer you, I will go along with his suggestion and present one of his playlists. I’ve decided to go with his 21 Original Songs playlist. But I do wish he would get someone to shoot a 20 minute set at one of the festivals he plays at.


Here is the list of the other songs we’ve featured this week:

We also featured him previously: Go Tell Aunt Rhody.

And as I mentioned, he’s released four albums:

  1. New Old Songs
  2. The Parting Glass
  3. SHIFT
  4. The Butcher Boy

Anniversary Post: Apollo 12

Apollo 12On this day in 1969, Apollo 12 was launched from Earth. It was the second human mission to the Moon — less than four months after Apollo 11 and five months before Apollo 13. People don’t tend to remember it. Apollo 11 was the first. And Apollo 13 was exciting in its failure. But you can hardly blame Americans for not caring about Apollo 12. It was covered by our media with all the seriousness that it covers politics. Just four months after people were riveted to their televisions about going to the Moon, they were as excited as they would have been had they broadcast a family vacation to Disneyland.

That’s how it was covered. We were going to the Moon. When we had never been, it was a big deal. But seeing it again was kind of like seeing a magician perform the same trick again. The truth, of course, was that NASA was actually doing things. Even if you didn’t care about the science, there were technological improvements. Apollo 12, for example, manage to actually land where it intended to — allowing parts of Surveyor 3 to be returned to Earth.

But this Tang commercial sums up the way that Americans were trained to think about the Apollo missions:

Humans would land on the moon only six times over the course of three and a half years. And we’ve never gone back. Now, in a sense, I don’t care. I’m not that fond of manned space exploration. What we’ve done with unmanned probes is amazing. But the fact that we went to the Moon a bunch of times in a short period and then stopped says a lot about us. One thing it says is that the people didn’t really care. Another thing is says is that the Apollo program was always primarily about the Cold War. And neither of those things speak well of us as a nation.

There is an argument against it. Why are we not dealing with problems here at home. I’ve always loved the Gil Scott-Heron song “Whitey on the Moon.” Of course, if the government hadn’t been spending money going into space, it wouldn’t have spent that money making the lives of the Earth-bound population better. In fact, it would probably be using it to make their lives substantially worse. But at least Scott-Heron engages with the subject. He doesn’t ignore it, like the nation did and does.