The 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.