Ken Burns to Speak about Race in America

Filmmaker coming to Lisner Auditorium to discuss his documentary about Jackie Robinson.

Ken Burns
Filmmaker Ken Burns, whose latest documentary, "Jackie Robinson," premiers April 11 and 12, will speak on campus Monday about race in America. (Photo courtesy of Justin Altman)
March 11, 2016

By James Irwin

Rachel Robinson first approached Ken Burns after the release of "Baseball," his 1994 series on America’s national pastime. The widow of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, told the documentary filmmaker that her husband deserved a stand-alone film about his life.

“I said I’d love to do something,” Mr. Burns said. “I had so many other projects I was working on that I just didn’t have time to fit it in.”

More than 20 years after "Baseball" earned him his first Emmy Award, Mr. Burns returns to the ballfield with "Jackie Robinson," which premiers April 11 and 12 on PBS. He and Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. will be at the George Washington University on Monday, where they will speak about race in America, an event tied to Mr. Burns’ film and one produced by Mr. Gates set for release this fall.

Conversations with Rachel Robinson, left, paint a multi-generational portrait of an African-American family in the mid-20th century in Ken Burns' "Jackie Robinson." (Photo courtesy of Rachel Robinson)

‘Race is our original sin’

Monday’s event is part of a series the two men have hosted since the June 2015 shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

“I’ve gotten a lot of grief in my professional life for continuing to deal with race,” Mr. Burns said. “I don’t go looking for it, it’s always there. This is the American dynamic. Race is our original sin. You can’t deal with American history without dealing with race. It’s been there since the very beginning.”

He said he grew frustrated after the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol caused people to “stick their heads in the ground like ostriches and ignore the ongoing dynamic of race in the United States.”

“This is a big issue in our country,” Mr. Burns said.

He has covered race through many of his documentary films, including "The Civil War," "Jazz" and "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History." This latest endeavor is no exception.

“I think what’s so interesting about this portrait of Jackie Robinson is it resonates with all the things we’re talking about now,” he said. “Race is with us, and Jackie permits us to deal with it not with the heat of the present moment but with the dispassion that comes from historical perspective.”

"Jackie Robinson" premiers April 11 and 12 on PBS. (Photo courtesy of Hulton Archive Getty Images)

Revealing complexities

Spanning Robinson’s life and featuring interviews with the social activist and singer Harry Belafonte, "The Boys of Summer" author Roger Kahn and President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, among others, the two-part film debunks myths about the man who has been the subject of several full-length films. Conversations with Rachel Robinson paint a multi-generational portrait of an African-American family in the mid-20th century and a love story between the film’s central characters.

The narrative, Mr. Burns said, is much more complicated than a flattened reciting of historical facts would suggest.

“It’s always been that [Brooklyn Dodgers owner] Branch Rickey reached down from heaven and anointed Jackie,” he said. “You realize now there’s a more important dynamic of African-Americans pressing for integration since well before the Civil War.”

Many moving pieces converged during the time immediately prior to Robinson’s Dodgers debut, Mr. Burns said. A strong black press—particularly focused on the integration of baseball—a growing labor movement in America and a progressive New York City mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, all shaped the era.

“There’s pressure on Branch Rickey, not just from his own conscience, but from other outside forces that help precipitate events,” Mr. Burns said. “And there’s no reason why a sophisticated structure [today] can’t tolerate all those things. Why not try to ratify a more complicated truth? In fact, I think by adding these dimensions you get a much more real portrait of who Jackie Robinson was.”

Jackie Robinson and 35,000 demonstrators march for civil rights on the eve of the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of David S. Johnson/Library of Congress)

A pioneer for civil rights

Mr. Burns has called Robinson the most important person in the history of baseball, and one of the most important people in American history. It is important to note, he said, that much of Robinson’s work to promote equality predates many landmark moments in the modern civil rights movement.

When Robinson made his major league debut on April 15, 1947, Martin Luther King Jr. was a student at Morehouse College, the military had not yet been integrated and Rosa Parks was eight years away from refusing to give up her bus seat.

“Jackie represents the beginning of a whole new era,” Mr. Burns said. “You begin to realize that Dr. King is right when he said, ‘Jackie Robinson was a sit-inner before sit-ins and a freedom rider before freedom rides.’ And you begin to understand his extraordinary contributions, not only to the game of baseball, but to American life.”