Ken Burns Says His New Jackie Robinson Documentary Is ‘About Black Lives Matter’

Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson safely steals home plate under the tag of New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in the eighth inning of the World Series opener at New York’s Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 1955. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN ROONEY, FILE
Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson safely steals home plate under the tag of New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in the eighth inning of the World Series opener at New York’s Yankee Stadium on Sept. 28, 1955. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN ROONEY, FILE

Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns declared on Sunday that his upcoming two-part series on African American baseball legend Jackie Robinson will focus on the intersection of race and politics, saying “it’s about Black Lives Matter.”

Speaking to Mother Jones reporter Edwin Rios over the weekend, Burns explained that the biography, entitled Jackie Robinson, chronicles the baseball great’s struggles to overcome racial barriers and become the first professional black player in Major League Baseball. But while Robinson’s ability to triumph over adversity is well-documented, Burns said his take on the Brooklyn Dodgers star will deconstruct the “mythologized” version of him as a rule-abider, focusing instead on the broader spectrum of racial politics that he helped unsettle — one that has resonance in modern America.

It’s about driving while black. It’s about stop-and-frisk. It’s about integrated swimming pools. It’s about the Confederate flag. It’s about black churches that are torched by arsonists.

“We felt that once you’re free from the barnacles of that sentimentality, once you’ve liberated them from the mythology, then all of a sudden, what’s this film about? Well, it’s about Black Lives Matter,” Burns told Mother Jones. “They didn’t call it that back then. It’s about driving while black. It’s about stop-and-frisk. It’s about integrated swimming pools. It’s about the Confederate flag. It’s about black churches that are torched by arsonists. It’s about the Southern strategy, beginning in the 1960s in more fully, took the party of Lincoln, founded in 1844 with one principle, the abolition of slavery, and turned it into and detailed a pact with the devil that Jackie witnessed firsthand. That they would then, because of the civil rights bill, go after disaffected Southern whites who had normally voted Democratic and employ what we call generously the Southern strategy.”

Burns also noted that the popularized image of Robinson as a squeaky clean hero obscures the the second baseman’s fierce determination as a player and a de facto advocate for racial equality.

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“You get rid of this sentimental nostalgia about Jackie, that he’s the ‘good Negro’ who turned the other cheek and behaved the way a Negro is supposed to at that time, and understand the fiery, competitive kid who’s unwilling to accept second-class status — and how he carried that throughout his professional life and into his post-baseball life until the very end,” Burns said. “It’s an existential story about not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. We begin to realize how important Jackie is. He is obviously the most important person in the history of baseball, and I would suggest in American sports. But the story goes way beyond that.”

The documentary is Burns’ third on the topic of America’s pastime, beginning with the critically acclaimed and aptly titled Baseball, which was published in 1994 and later updated with an expansion entitled 10th Inning in 2010. It’s also the second time he has chronicled the story of a famous African American athlete, his first being a 220-minute epic biography of Jack Johnson, the first African American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World.

In addition, Burns, a longtime Democrat, has created several documentaries chronicling the lives of historical politicians, such as Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But he has also used his filmmaking talents to impact contemporary politics: He produced a video for Ted Kennedy’s speech to the Democratic National Committee in 2008, and created another short video for Kennedy’s funeral after he died the following year. He also endorsed Barack Obama for president in 2007, comparing him to Abraham Lincoln.

Jackie Robinson premieres Monday, April 11, at 9:00p.m. ET on PBS. It runs until April 12.