In 1992, Spike Lee released the Denzel Washington-fronted masterpiece “Malcolm X.” By 1996, the famed-director knew his next subject. “Jackie Robinson, 53 years old, hair completely white, sits back in his easy chair,” his script reads. But by the time he completed the fifth draft of his Jackie Robinson biopic, adapted from the ballplayer’s autobiography, “I Never Had it Made,” Washington declined the part by admitting he’d be too old to play the pioneer. Thereby, losing his star.
Since then, Lee has made mention of his struggle to find financial backing for the project. His dream remained vaulted away until recently when he released his script under quarantine. After reading Lee’s 155-page screenplay, it’s apparent that he’s crafted the most complex and human cinematic portrayal of the now-revered pioneer; but for that reason—it’ll probably never be made.
Lee’s interpretation of Robinson’s life paints a fuller picture than Brian Helgeland’s “42” (2013), for instance—inviting viewers through a nifty narrative trick. To open, Lee constructs a scene where an aging, partially-blind Robinson sits near his wife, Rachel. Suddenly an airing of Alfred E. Green’s “The Jackie Robinson Story” (1950)—which starred Robinson as himself—flickers across their television. Lee ingeniously uses the hoaky film as a jumping-off point into the Civil Rights pioneer’s early life: from his first time meeting Rachel to his enlistment in the army to his debut with the Kansas City Monarchs.
The director offers an unsanitized version of Robinson, throughout—not just the turn-the-other-cheek historical deity that envelops the current mythology. Here, Robinson often uses harsh language. For instance, while in the army, a bus driver orders him off the bus after he refuses to relinquish his seat. He calls Robinson the n-word. Robinson responds to the bus driver with, “You better quit fuckin’ with me.” His response is human and provocative. It casts a Black man as fearless and heroic even in confrontation.
In this respect, Lee’s dialogue and the actions to his sluglines fit within his mid-’90s style—open (like “Do the Right Thing”). However, there are juvenile and dated sequences, too—mostly to do with Rachel Robinson. She plays the role of a supportive spouse meant to bolster and console her husband. She exists partnered with him but never separate. One would hope her role would grow in a revised script as opposed to her limited portrayal typical of biopics from 30 years ago. Then again, “First Man” (2018) employed the same trope, too. Moreover, there are moments when Lee shows a childish male gaze to Rachel’s physical appearance, describing her as “ still gorgeous” or “a most beautiful honey brown sister.”
Fifteen to twenty pages of Lee’s screenplay could be cut—basically, anything with the antagonistic sportswriter Dick Young, which adds contours to Robinson’s identity as a “race man” but never advances the plot. Nevertheless, some narrative tangents do conclude unceremoniously. Early on, Lee brings the great Satchel Paige to life, exploring the pitcher’s showmanship and talent. However, Paige’s arc ends when Robinson is signed by the Dodgers. The pitcher is last seen drunken and nearly alone on a ballfield decrying that he wasn’t the first in the majors. This leaves out the fact that he won a World Series with the Cleveland Indians in 1948. Moreover, Lee’s script relies too heavily on clunky voiceovers to fill gaps that should be visually conclusive, especially instances when he’s relying on play-by-play through Robinson’s own interior monologues.
Courageously though, in this biopic, there’s no such thing as a sincere white person without an ulterior motive. Here, Branch Rickey isn’t merely a craggy old man fighting for integration: He wants to win and make a pretty penny while doing so, too. Moreover, Robinson’s white Brooklyn teammates partly come to accept him because they hope the Black ballplayer will make them rich by winning them the pennant. He’s a commodity. Past these hurdles, and Robinson playing to racist crowds and opposing teams, Lee pretty much follows the ballplayer’s entire career, including the addition of two other Black teammates: Roy Campanella (who has an outsized and oddly antagonistic role, here) and Don Newcome.
The director further humanizes Robinson by portraying his greatness as a baseball player in tandem with his historic importance. In the haze of his brave acts, many often forget that Robinson was a Rookie of the Year, a 6-time All-Star, and an MVP. Lee provides ample examples of the ballplayer’s prowess and his fight to win a World Series through multiple in-game montages.
However, Lee races home quickest as his screenplay rounds third. He portrays the uneasier portions of Robinson’s legacy. For instance, after the conclusion of the ball player’s career, he supported more than a few conservative platforms. Robinson lived during an integral portion of political history. Prior to the 1960s, the Republican party was known as the Party of Lincoln. Conversely, the Dixiecrats in the South supported white supremacy during the 1940s and before. However, by the ’60s, the roles of both parties reversed. Robinson was behind the times. He backed Richard Nixon against Kennedy in 1960 and campaigned for the Republican Nelson Rockefeller during the New York Governor’s ill-fated 1964 Presidential bid. In fact, at one point in Lee’s script, because of his views, Robinson is called an “Uncle Tom.” He transforms from an unabashed hero to a misbegotten political equivocator at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s an intriguing and tragic fall.
Moreover, Lee delves into the painful relationship between Robinson and his son Jackie Jr. The pioneer’s role as a family man is rarely characterized in common retellings of his life. Jackie Jr.—overshadowed by his father’s athletic prowess and historical importance—would later serve in the Vietnam War and return home with a crippling drug habit. Robinson’s son’s post-war struggle, which occupies only a few pages of Lee’s script, could be expanded. Especially as the subplot perfectly and emotionally transitions into the withered and downtrodden Robinson the viewer sees by the film’s heartbreaking end.
The Jackie Robinson in Lee’s biopic defies the popular mythos accepted by white audiences. Here, he’s a complex and imperfect human being. Which might explain why the screenplay has been a tough sell to studios. There’s not much thirst to see a legend made mortal, especially when the common tradition concludes with Robinson’s white Dodger teammate Pee Wee Reese wrapping his arm around him. A moment that often puts white audiences at ease because it shows that there’s at least one good white soul.
Instead, Lee absconds from such easy interpretations of race, people, or Robinson. Which explains why studios have often opted for works like “42” and “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Lee sees Robinson as he’s always been—a pivotal figure who defined every arena of the American experience. It’s time for Netflix and other studios to see Robinson the same way, and to hand Lee over the necessary cash for the director to realize the most complete vision of Robinson ever put to screen. Or else this Civil Rights giant will remain held at first.