VICE Sports Q&A: Sarah Burns, Co-Director of the New "Jackie Robinson" Documentary

The new PBS Jackie Robinson documentary premieres on Monday night. We spoke to one of the directors, Sarah Burns, about the film and about being the daughter of legendary documentarian Ken Burns.
April 11, 2016, 3:50pm

"Jackie Robinson was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."

—-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1957

As Americans, we tend to like our icons smoothed over like the wax statues at Madame Tussauds. Complexity gives way to easily digestible narratives, which often defang icons, turning them into fables rather than three-dimensional human beings. The seventh-grade book report on Jackie Robinson says he's renowned for integrating baseball and for not fighting back. The advanced version notes that he loved stealing home, was the subject of a 1949 Count Basie record, and later in life, supported Richard Nixon.

Jackie Robinson was, of course, much more than simply a tremendous ballplayer who enabled Branch Rickey's grand experiment to succeed. For starters, after his first season, Robinson did fight back, right up until a final World Series appearance shortly before he died at 53. Long before he called Ebbets Field home, he literally refused to move to the back of the bus—on an Army base and he got court-martialed because of it. After baseball, he brought his family to hear Dr. King at the March on Washington, and called out Bull Connor on his home turf of Birmingham. Robinson was also a business leader who never stopped fighting for the cause, hosting multiple NAACP fundraisers on his front lawn in lily-white Connecticut.

Read More: Throwback Thursday: What Al Campanis Revealed On Nightline 29 Years Ago

Jack and wife Rachel had one of the great American romances, and dealt with the death of their oldest son Jackie Jr., a Vietnam war veteran who battled heroin addiction, got clean, and died tragically in a car crash. Rachel, still a regal presence at 93, anchors Jackie Robinson, a new two-part deep-dive documentary that premieres April 11-12 on PBS.

Jackie Robinson's wife Rachel, pictured here with Sandy Koufax, plays a central role in the PBS documentary. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Sarah Burns is one of the three directors, along with husband David McMahon and father Ken, who has rounded the baseball diamond before. The film is rife with all kinds of great details, such as Jackie being the only Dodger who stayed on the field to make sure Bobby Thompson touched 'em all after the Shot Heard 'Round the World. But the ole' ballgame is just one documentary facet. Jackie Robinson is the definitive portrait of an American hero.

Sarah talked to VICE Sports about learning her father's tricks, the eternal shitheadedness of Donald Trump, Jackie's overlooked civil rights legacy, and why a Michael Jordan comparison doesn't fit.

VICE Sports: What are the logistics of having three directors, how does that work exactly?

Sarah Burns: The place where it comes into play is when we're all sitting together, during editing. Dave and I wrote the script and the interviews were divided up amongst the three of us. In the editing room, we looked at all the visual materials, the interviews and the talking heads. Our original material would have made for a fourteen-hour film. We sat there with our small team, watched through a six-hour versions of one episode to cut, rewrite, rearrange, all to try to figure out what's important. Do we all agree and get along? Surprisingly with three directors, yes. And if we don't all agree, two people do, so the majority rules. I'll back off on say a clip I didn't want to cut. The back-and-forth adds to the process and we typically all ended up in the same place. We put our heads together and decide what we want to say, how we're going to get the essence of Jackie Robinson.

What is it like working side-by-side with your dad, a man who pioneered a documentary and has provided PBS many, many, many hours of television?

I've learned a lot from both my dad and my husband, David McMahon, who has worked with my father on a number of projects. It's a true family affair and it's been great. Watching dad in the editing room, especially at the finish line where we need tiny subtle adjustments, is a joy. I might say, 'Hmmm, there's something off about this scene.' Where he will turn to the editor, 'take that up six frames and take the music down here,' and it's like 'ohhhhh, that's what the problem was.' Dad's amazing skill of knowing why three frames will make all the difference in a single moment comes out of the thirty-plus years he's been making films. It amazes me every time.

How old were you when the Civil War came out and what was that experience like in the Burns household?

It came out in 1990, so I was eight, a third-grader. It was wild. It happened to coincide with the one time in my life I briefly kept a diary. I looked back at my journal and there were entries like, 'Today, my dad got famous all across the country.' Suddenly, he was on the evening news, the volume of mail coming to the house increased a thousandfold, the phone was ringing off the hook… Overnight, everything changed. The following week's entry was, 'Today, I woke up at 5 a.m., flew to Washington D.C., and met President Bush in the Oval Office.' I brought back White House M&M's for my class.

I'm guessing you can get more or less whomever you want on camera, so do you start with a list of hard and fast list interviewees, or do you find people to fill in certain holes throughout the project?

It's a little bit of an evolution. There are obvious people that we know we want to talk to from the beginning, but Jackie Robinson would've been 97 if he were alive today, so there aren't a whole lot of contemporaries to choose from. Naturally, Rachel is the centerpiece of the film. We interviewed her three times, which we don't generally do, but she's the one who was there for most of Jackie's life. We couldn't find anyone who grew up with him, unfortunately they've all passed. Beyond Rachel, we added people depending on what type of commentary we needed, even into the editing process. Along the way, we gained an understanding of what we were missing and called upon people to answer those questions. So some of the historical analysis came later, like breaking down Jackie's complicated relationship to Malcolm X and the late 1960s Civil Rights movement.

Going into the film, did you know you were going to stick with the tried-and-true framework of your dad's Baseball? And do you consider it a continuation?

Rachel Robinson came to my dad years ago and told him to make this film, so it originated out of his series, but don't think it's a continuation of Baseball because it tells the story of Jackie's life, not just as a Dodger. We did use the same look and feel, though, because it works. I didn't use my dad's format in Central Park Five, since it was a story with contemporary elements. There was no narration, but going forward, I'll use whatever suits the subject matter.

Let's talk about Central Park Five, was it always your intent to follow in your dad's documentarian footsteps?

I came into the family business of documentary film with the Central Park Five, but first I wrote a book about the case. Dissecting the media coverage that surrounded it was actually my undergraduate thesis. It's a story I was passionate about and it just so happened that a documentary was the best way to tell it. I was lucky to have the opportunity to work on that movie, and I really enjoyed the collaborative nature of film, combining storytelling with the production elements.

Are you still in touch with the guys who went to prison, and if so, how are they doing?

I do keep in touch with them. They're all doing pretty well, especially since they all received their settlements, which offered a huge change in their lives. A couple of the guys are in the process of buying homes and moving out of New York City, which is a new development. Korey Wise was recently in the news for donating a chunk of his settlement to CU-Boulder to help set up an Innocence Project-type clinic. Kevin Richardson is getting married this summer, Raymond Santana got married a year-and-a-half ago, Yusef Salaam just had a son, his first boy after six girls… They're building families, figuring out how they want to live, and going about their lives. They're all making their way.

So, is it fair to say it's been a happy ending for the Central Park Five?

As much as it can be under the circumstances, I think so. I don't want to generalize their experiences, they are individuals with unique lives, but to varying degrees, they are all settling down comfortably. I was amazed from the first time I met them, right after the convictions were vacated, at how well they handled the situation. It could have made them so angry and bitter but they were all handling it. In differing ways, but they all coped and moved on for the better.

There's the idea that potential President Donald Trump is riling people up as strategy, purposeful vitriol, but Central Park Five lays bare how he's been a bigoted asshole forever.

None of this is surprising. He's been a racist for a long time. He placed newspaper ads in 1989 calling for the Central Park Five to be executed. His frustration was that New York State didn't perform executions, even though these were juveniles, 14 and 15-years-old, and they were charged with a crime that even if New York had the death penalty, wouldn't have been eligible. It smacks of a lynching. There's no other way to think about it even if Trump wasn't using language like Pat Buchanan who wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Post saying if "the eldest of the wolf pack were tried, convicted, and hanged in Central Park by June 1, and the 13-and-14-year-olds were stripped, horsewhipped, and sent to prison, the Park might soon be safe again for women." In 1989, you could write that kind of thing in the newspaper. So while Donald Trump didn't use specific language to that extreme, he placed ads and spent a nice chunk of money in the four daily newspapers—more than most people in the city made in a year—to say we need to support our police, bring back the death penalty, and how much he we need to rid New York City of these muggers and murderers… It was full of hatred and specifically targeted at young black and brown men.

On the polar opposite side, I had the good fortune of interviewing Rachel Robinson last year and it felt like I was speaking to royalty. She and Jack, as she calls him, shared one of the truly great American love stories, which shines through in the film.

We set out to tell a story of Jackie Robinson that goes beyond the on-the-field persona everyone knows. The love between the Robinsons is a big part of it and it's all thanks to getting Rachel on camera as much as we were able to. She let us into the family, the part of Jackie rarely seen.

Rachel is an extraordinary human being. She's kind of my my idol.

The first half of the documentary is more familiar, but yet not exactly what we've seen. What do you think is the main thing people don't know about Jackie's Dodger years?

The Jackie Robinson I learned about in middle school was always about "turning the other cheek." How he made an agreement with Branch Rickey and took on all of this horrible abuse and racism thrown at him without responding, reacting, or fighting back. It's the core of the Jackie Robinson story. I don't think people understand that arrangement was only for a brief part of his early career and went against his character. He was inclined to speak his mind and stand up for his rights. After he stopped turning the other cheek, he argued with umpires, and complained about injustices, small and large, inside and outside of baseball. It rankled people. A lot of the white press who had supported him in 1947 changed their tune by the end of his career in 1956. Robinson had been supported as a martyr, but when he opened his mouth, they turned. He was outspoken as a player to the extent that even his black teammates like Roy Campanella weren't comfortable with the way Jackie rocked the boat.

The brief period of Robinson's early baseball career that's always focused on is an anomaly.

It feels like the radicalism of many civil rights pioneers has been muted today. Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, even Malcolm X, have all been sanitized for your protection.

It's exactly what's happened. We, as a white society, are more comfortable with a Jackie Robinson who is quiet. It's a nice moral lesson we've packaged and sold. We're way less comfortable with the story of Robinson as a man who stood up and yelled about things that didn't sit right. It's the same way how everyone zeroes in on Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech and ignores the things he talked about later on, like economic opportunities. We've boiled men like Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King down to a simplified narrative that takes away from their full lives and what they had to say.

Seems like the main thing people know about Jackie's post-baseball career is that he supported Nixon. What are his greatest accomplishments after he left the Dodgers?

It's one of the Jackie factoids, Did you know he was a Republican? Yes, he supported Nixon in 1960, but that's it. He always considered himself an Independent and was horrified by the rise of Barry Goldwater in 1964. By 1968, he was campaigning against Nixon.

Beyond that, he did a lot after baseball and was constantly trying to figure out how to use his platform to help people who didn't have the same voice. He did it in a number of ways. He was a vice president at Chock full o'Nuts and co-founded Freedom National Bank, one of the few black-owned banks, so he was a pioneer in business. African-American economic empowerment was very important to him. He and Rachel used to hold jazz concerts on their lawn; they'd get big names like Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck, and all the proceeds would go to the NAACP or the SCLC. She kept them going for years.

Jackie wasn't a civil rights leader in the same way as people who were on the front lines risking their lives, but he was important nonetheless. When called, he always went down south to give speeches, mainly to boost morale, but he was always looking for ways to push the cause. A couple of weeks before he died in 1972, hobbled by diabetes and his blindness worsening, he was asked to throw out the first pitch before Game Two of the World Series in Cincinnati. He said he would only do it if he could speak. His speech was short, but he criticized baseball for still not having any black managers, not even a first or third base coach.

Jackie's approach set the tone for a modern template, economic advancement above politics, spread the money around a la Michael Jordan.

Right, not being a radical, but using your voice for empowerment. Michael Jordan is an interesting comparison because he wasn't politically outspoken and Jackie isn't generally known as a public advocate either. However, Jordan famously said "Republicans buy sneakers too," when asked to support North Carolina's Democratic senatorial candidate against Jesse Helms. Jackie wasn't afraid of what people thought of him. He wasn't building a brand, he was risking his popularity by speaking out often. His reputation didn't matter to him.

After Nixon, Jackie stumped for Nelson Rockefeller for a number of years, what was his connection? Was it personal or did he believe in his platform?

Jackie was in many ways a small-c conservative type guy. It's what drew him to the Republican party, the party of Lincoln. It changed after 1964, but what we still call "Rockefeller Republicans" always appealed to him. He liked Nelson as a person and agreed with him politically, but even then, Rockefeller was a dying breed. They're dead and gone now.

It doesn't come up in the documentary, but did you have discussions about the lack of African-Americans in baseball today while working on it?

We were and definitely discussed the topic amongst ourselves. It didn't make it in the film because we wanted it to be about Jackie's life, so it ends with his death. The way we framed the film didn't give us a chance to talk about the different ways his legacy has played out. It's an interesting conversation because Major League Baseball didn't make Jackie a focal point until 1997. Young players didn't know who he was. Today, MLB pays more attention to his legacy, and it seems like they are doing more outreach to African-American communities, but I don't know if it is bringing more black kids to the game. Baseball doesn't have the place in our society that it once did.

Jackie Robinson Day is now celebrated annually around the majors. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

You live in Brooklyn with your husband and kids. Did working on Jackie Robinson make you see the borough, or connect to it, in any different way?

It was great to be in Brooklyn when we were studying the borough as it was in the 1940s and 50s. We live in Park Slope, just a few miles from where Ebbets Field use to be, so I definitely felt a physical connection to where his career took place. It was also interesting to learn about the former demographics of the borough, what Brooklyn was like back then. There were very few African-Americans at that time, only around 100,000, even though the overall population was the same as today, some 2.5-million people. I didn't understand that before the film, which changed my perspective on Robinson's era. There is also the sense, the cliche, that New York City, and Brooklyn in particular, is a melting pot, but the neighborhoods were generally closed and ethnically homogenized. It's true to some degree today, but back then, that's the way it was. In the film, Dodgers fan Myron Uhlberg of "Bensonhoist" talks about how it was all Italians and Jews and how he'd never seen a black person. Our nostalgia for this melting pot idea is somewhat misplaced.

Let's end on Jackie's athleticism, which sometimes gets lost in the iconography, but the footage is stunning, he's just incredible to watch, speed and grace.

It was so fun to go through, I wish we had more footage! And not just baseball, the UCLA football clips are incredible. He was an all-around talented athlete and baseball wasn't his greatest strength by any stretch. I suspect if he came along a generation later, he would have gone to the NFL. He probably would've competed in the 1940 Olympics in Track & Field if they would've been held. He was good at tennis and later in life he became quite skilled at golf. There's a story, and I don't have the exact details, but basically in junior college he picked up a new sport, table tennis I believe, and won the tournament having never played before.

He was diagnosed with diabetes at 33, but didn't retire until he was 37. Even if his body started to fail him at a young age, he pushed through and remained a world-class athlete. It just makes you say, this man could do anything. Jackie Robinson was extraordinary.