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:

Afterword

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.

9 thoughts on “Jackie Robinson Story and Other Anti-Racism Films

  1. Yes, now the people who have creepy files on you are innocent companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter….

    • Elizabeth — yes, thank goodness Hoover is dead, so the FBI doesn’t spy on us any more! At least back in the day you could request your file from the FBI (you actually could do this, you’d get your file mailed to you with huge segments blacked out for “security reasons.”) Good luck getting your NSA file today.

      Frank — nice editing! And a sidebox of my favorite line!

      • Yeah, I like that line too. I almost embedded the video. It’s so great to see Ernest Borgnine get his ass kicked. And then eaten by rats in Willard. I love Ernest Borgnine and all, but it’s just nice to see him in these roles. But I’ll never get over Marty. Are we really to believe that Ernest Borgnine is in any way in a better class of looks than Betsy Blair?! Come on! He deserves to be eaten by rats, even if the casting wasn’t his fault.

        • Like a thug would sit there and let you say that line! Thugs don’t have a lot of patience for letting one deliver dramatic lines. I wonder how many neat scenes like this are screenwriters imagining what they’d say to the people who bullied them. Judo chop! I beat up a bigot!

          Borgnine, I wonder. He certainly played scummy characters. He was goofy-looking, so he couldn’t play heroes. I can’t stand him in any movie he’s in, but typecasting plays a part in that.

          And fuck “Marty.” Fuck that film.

          Here’s the permalink to the SB “Robinson” bit:

          http://www.twinkietown.com/2015/11/14/9616676/the-jackie-robinson-story-42-which-one-wins

          Not good work, but I’m happy with the FBI stuff. That was a neat find.

          I could go off on old movies forever. I do enjoy them.

          • “I wonder how many neat scenes like this are screenwriters imagining what they’d say to the people who bullied them.” All of them. Most of my fiction writing is based on trying the fix the humiliations of my life. I just watched John Wick, which I really wanted to like. I’ll probably write about it tomorrow. But you have to wonder about the writer of it. What kind of beatings is he trying to make up for? I’m not planning to the review the film. It was absolutely awful. What is fascinating is how it was praised by the critics. Because being “stylish” is enough. I figured it was based on a comic book, but no: screenwriters can come up with their own impossible and pointless stories. John Wick makes A History of Violence look like Citizen Kane.

            • Sadly all the Cronenberg films with Viggo Mortensen are pretty bad. Good actor, good director, it didn’t work out. For some reason the two of them thought it worked out.

              And I thought I was toiling through the rubble watching old baseball movies. Sitting through “John Wick,” this is devotion to writing for the pure pleasure of masochism. Good luck making anything of that. I salute the effort.

              Being a picked-on geek was no fun. Someday somebody will write about how horrible it was.

              • I thought the two Cronenberg/Mortensen films I saw were fine — just not the great work Cronenberg can do. And A History of Violence has probably the most erotic thing ever put on film with its combination of lust and disdain.

                I would have stopped watching John Wick if I hadn’t decided to write about it, so you are right about that. I was, however, curious to see if it got better. It didn’t.

      • *shrugs* I am more upset by the private industry which has zero controls on it having that kind of insane level of information on me. But that is me.

        And I liked John Wick so I have all sorts of unpopular opinions in this thread. ;)

        • You’re a witch! I knew it! Burn the witch!

          Please submit form 66-6 to sector HL by the witch-in deadline this Thursday so we may appropriately process your burning.

          Burning may include side effects such as high heat, skin melting, and overall death. In the case of death lasting more than four hours, consult your physician. “FC” assumes no responsibility for tying anyone to a pole and lighting them on fire. By clicking on any post, you agree to the terms and services made perfectly clear in ten pages of utter legalistic gibberish.

          (Oh, Lord, I could go on and on with this stuff!)

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