The Representations Of Jackie Robinson’s Life Through Relevant Aspect Of The Documentaries


Many people in the past are seen as important for multiple reasons. This is also the case in sports. One of those principal players in sport is Jackie Robinson. This black African-American baseball player broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. His number “42” is even the only number in all teams to be retired. Robinson is an important character in sport history for many reasons but mainly for experiencing a lot of backlash from the still racist population of the United States in the 1950’s. From the first documentary made in his honor, The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) to the latest Jackie Robinson Chronicles (2016), multiple other documentary has been produced. Always telling the same story, but always getting new and interesting movies. Why so? Robinson passed away at the age of 53 in 1972. Even after his death, more than six other documentaries have been made. It is interesting to look at what is so phenomenal about his life. This said, having different representations of a life that was only lived once is thought-provoking. Therefore, why is the representation of Jackie Robinson life distinguished differently through the various production periods of these specific movies? The different times and environments in which the movies were produced and how a life can be symbolised through many different ways with all the same story line is important to understand the root cause. The representations of Robinson’s life through relevant aspect of the periods the documentaries were produced, the representation of important issues and many racial issues will be discussed as per the periods of time they happened.

The essay will be divided into three parts which will start with the movies made in the time period of the 1950’s discussing the concern of Civil Rights of African-American’s, followed by the documentaries produced in the 1990’s and its importance regarding segregation and the post-war era, and will be concluded with the films created in the 2000 until now relating them to poverty and Barack Obama’s impact as the President. Each period of time has put importance on what was going on in the country at the time and through the documentaries, demonstrated central values to the society relying it with Robinson’s life.

1950: The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

The first movie made about Jackie Robinson was made in 1950, only three years after his debut in the Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Jackie Robinson Story is the only documentary made in honor of Robinson while alive. The movie begins with a view of life of Robinson in the black baseball leagues in the post-World War II era. He then makes his way to the farm team Montreal AAA franchise of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Later on, making his debut in the pro league, he faces many prejudice and adversity because of his colour. Hence, the important two main topics of racism and the post war era are portrayed in the documentary. The first subject of the colour-barrier being now broken in professional baseball provoked many different attitudes in 1947. Many were aspired from this movement to continue the Civil Rights Movement newly started. Although this was a step breaking for the African-American culture in the United States and in sports in general, it was not appreciated from everyone. At the time the movie was produced, the Civil Right Movement was launch. “The Civil Rights Movement was a struggle by African Americans in the mid-1950’s to late 1960’s to achieve Civil Rights equal to those of whites, including equal opportunity in employment, housing, and education, as well as the right to vote, the right of equal access to public facilities, and the right to be free of racial discrimination.” The representation of African-American rights was really important, and an enormous time was dedicated to the representation of equality in the movie. While, this was actually the life Jackie Robinson lived through during the tough years of being criticized and receiving multiple racial discrimination he suffered, the importance of the representation in the movie was a way of putting the Civil Rights Movement out in the public for everyone to see.

The movie was made at the time where the production Hollywood was under the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which was a committee created to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees and organizations suspected of Communist actions. As Baker mentions in his paper Sport Films, History, and Identity, he states that “the cold war anti-Communist hysteria represented by Robinson’s testimony before HUAC shown at the end of The Jackie Robinson Story was a factor in slowing down the start of the civil rights movement”. This statement from Baker ties in with the second theme of the documentary which was the life after World War II in the United States. This theme was prominent in the movie because they mention Robinson’s time in the army. Relating this factor of representing his country and his loyalty, the indication of his time there was shown in an appreciation of what he had done, and also represented in a way where he could get some respect from others. Still tying in racism to the fact, the war was portrayed as a good part of Robinson’s life an in his acceptation of being black but also an American. Trying to put the two as one, the representation in the movie of racial discrimination is evident. The non-acceptance of Robinson’s teammates, opponent, and especially the fans is important to understand. Since at the time white people saw themselves as above black people the signifier of race and status were tied hand in hand. This said a meaning or signifier is never fixed. Stuart Hall even goes about saying race as a language is like a floating signifier. He mentions in his transcript of a lecture that: “that race is more like a language, than it is the way in which we are biologically constituted”. Thus, in the movie, race was a main signifier and was in fact not going to be relevant for ever but will for many years. Even if race is only a floating signifier because is it not static and changes over time, a better understanding of the long term signification of the word race is expressed through the next arguments.

1990: The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990) and Soul of the Game (1996)

The second important period of the representations of Jackie Robinson’s life came over 40 years after his debut in the pro league. The 1990’s was an important decade for multiple reasons like Nelson Mandela being released from prison in 1990 and later became the president of South Africa in 1994, or the conviction of OJ Simpson in 1994, the MLB strike in 1994 or even many successful stories of African-American athletes. All these important steps towards equality was intended and are all relevant when looking at two other specific documentaries made in Robinson’s honor. The first one being The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990) and the second was Soul of the Game (1996). Twenty years after the death of Robinson, a new movie was made, and only four years later another one. A trend had started, and Robinson’s life obstacles were about to be exposed once again but under different representations and for different reasons. “The power of racializing categories in popular culture creates one of the dominant lines in society and culture”. By the 1990’s, the Civil Rights Movement had slowed down since the movement was working and more rights were attributed to African-American citizen. The storm of after the wars had also ended. Therefore, racial discrimination was not as prominent as in the 1950’s, and as if people almost forgot it was an issue. Although, less racial issues were vital, it was still a taboo subject for a lot of people. Rewriting movies about the importance of race through an iconic member of the racial movement like with Robinson’s movement in sport would classify systems of differences differently toady than 40 years ago. Even though, African-American have more right in the 1990 decade than ever before, the society still uses this classification system that categorizes people. Like Hall mentions: “these are very big cultural principals we’re talking about and a whole lot in terms of power and exclusion results from having the system of classification. So, … race as a principal of classification operates to sort out the world into its superiors and inferiors along some line of biological or race and how as a consequence of that all the conduct of society towards black people is inflicted and shaped by that system of classification”. The resurgence of the new movies is then a good way to represents topics such as the unfair sociological classification system that categorizes people. More like an eye opener for all the Whites watching the movies and creating a self-reflection.

Both movies also showed importance on the time Robinson spent in the army, and how it helped him built a character for himself to be as successful as he was. While this is true, through his time in the forces, Robinson also suffered racial segregation. Like shown in The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, Robinson displayed insubordination against a racist Texas court-martial to go to the back of the bus because of his colour but refused to do so. He then received an honorable discharge for the racial discrimination he faced. Reading the body of the actors in both The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson and Soul of the Game, the representation portrayed was confidence and a sense of defiance in Robinson’s actions was seen. Because the repercussions were so high back in the 1950’s people knew not to cause problem but, in this case, Robinson got rewarded. The importance in the 1990’s to emphasise this little victory came along the success of other black athletes such as Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan. Lisa Alexander brings an important point regarding the difference from the 1950’s movie The Jackie Robinson Story and the 1990’s movie The Court-Martial Jackie Robinson, “Court-Martial advocates the idea that racial progress was not just the result of top-down edicts, it was also the product of bottom-up grass roots agitating”. The 90’s decade was an important period of change and acceptance from both the white and black people. That not only the black people were fighting for their rights and equality but that white people started to understand and acknowledge that racial discrimination was a thing and that is was really cruel. Lots of positive changes appeared in that period of time, and the representation in the movies changed from the previous ones from Civil Right focus to segregation and acceptance. It is interesting to see why many more documentaries were made after this period and what kind of representations will explored the twenty-first century.

2000: Jackie Robinson: A Life Story (2003) and 42 (2013)

The last important period regarding the representation of most of Jackie Robinson’s documentaries is the twenty-first century. This century is particularly important to look at in depth because from the naked eye, the issue of racism is not as pertinent and exposed as it once was in the 1990’s and even less than in the 1950’s. Racism is still an issue and many points such as poverty in the African-American population is a very important subject barely talked about, as well as the biggest impact from an African-American to date. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States is a game changer in 2009 and moving on for the next eight years. Although, racism, racial classification, discrimination, and stereotypes still exist, the level and intensity of it is declining. In 2003 Jackie Robinson: A Life Story was created, and the representation of this movie is completely different than the previous ones. Focussing on the poverty he experienced and relating it to racism were the main themes of the documentary. The weight of poverty in the movie is important because poverty for the Black population is still above 20 percent in the 2000’s years. “Blacks and female-householder families set record lows”. The representation of poverty in the African-American population in the movie therefore, becomes very important. By only showing on screen the struggles of poverty for the black people in the United States, a movement of equality resurface and fair rights to work, pay, and safe life was briefly underway.

For a long time, politics have been in the way of black people and their struggles. Like Hall mentions: “The reason why it matters is not because what’s in our genes it’s because of what is in our history. It’s because black people have been in a certain position in society, in history, over a long period of time that those who are the conditions they’re in and that’s what they’re fighting against. And of course, that matters, but then black, the term black, is referring to this long history of political and historical oppression”. But something very special happened in the 21st century, and this was that Barack Obama becomes the 44th President. A major movement for the African-American was launch and many victories came from Obama to help the Black population. Some examples are the My Brother’s Keeper initiative designed to help young minorities, the unemployment rate for African Americans decreased, the income median of back households increased, and many more examples regarding criminal justice, health, and equality. Thus, the movie 42 coming out in 2013 was perfect timing. Jackie Robinson seen as a hero for the African-American people back in the 1950’s can be represented as a hero once again, just like Obama is doing at this point in time. Through Robinson’s accomplishment of braking colour-barriers, Obama is doing the same in a different context. “42 frames baseball’s reintegration as top-down endeavor that assumes that significant historical events are the results of machinations of powerful men at the top of the political, social, or economic food chain”. The timing that the movie was release and the environment people were in at the time, was encouraging never like before. Using the achievement of Obama to feel empowered and respected was an important point in the history of African-American people. Releasing the documentary at that time was great, because the movie represented all the struggles they once faced in history to emphasise the accomplishment of where they are now. Therefore, in the movie, reading the bodies of the actors; more confidence is portrayed than in the other movies, because the intended representation of the film was to show the strength and the success of where they are now compared to before.


To conclude, many movies throughout the history and the history of sport were significant. Starting in 1950’s to now, Jackie Robinson’s life has been represented in so many different ways. Throughout the periods of time the movies produced important consideration and has been demonstrated differently in each documentary even though the story lines never changed. The interesting question raised in the paper of why the representation of Robinson’s life were different throughout the various production periods of the movies was explained in each respective time period of the production of the movies. First off, the 1950’s exemplified the struggle of Civil Rights for African-American citizen of the United States, thus, the importance on The Jackie Robinson Story portrayed exactly that. The second era look at the 1990’s. The 1990’s was a time where the after war was really important and affected deeply the black nation. The focus on segregation and discrimination is then a really important factor to the history. Both movies The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson and Soul of the Game presented a great deal of those issues. And lastly, the twenty-first century was the last period of time looked at. Many positive changes happened during that time while still showing the importance of issues like poverty. Jackie Robinson: A Life Story and 42 are both displaying important historical factors during that time period. It is important to understand that each movie was trying to emphasis events going on during the time the movies were produced, which impacted the spectators and fans even more because of the understanding of the situations. Using Jackie Robinson’s story so many times worked well because many aspects of his life and ground-breaking events led to multiple relevant event of the African-American history. It is interesting to think about what the new movies about him (if there is any other) in the future would look like.

16 December 2021
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