Jackie Robinson's life in Army is dramatized


October 15, 1990|By Steve McKerrow

Everybody knows Jackie Robinson the fleet-footed slugger who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers at the start of the 1947 season.

Far less known, however, are robinson's civil rights struggles within the U.S. Army, a gap neatly filled tonight by "The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson." The original film premieres on basic cable's TBS service at 8 o'clock (with a repeat at 10 p.m., plus additional plays Oct 16, 18 and 21.)

While our knowledge of Robinson's future makes the action reasonably predictable, the film conveys a fine sense of the rage and futility over bigotry which the athlete's subsequent success helped overcome in America -- or at least begin to overcome.

In straightforward fashion, the movie introduces us to Robinson (well played by Andre Braugher, from the film "Glory") as a budding All-American athlete and good student at UCLA in 1941. He has a steady girl but wants to leave school and try to become a coach, believing job opportunities even for blacks with college degrees are limited.

Pearl Harbor intervenes and Robinson is drafted. He soon finds, however, the Army is a segregated club, despite regulations to the contrary.

A white colonel, for example, blocks his application for Officers Candidates School. It is finally aproved only when boxer, Joe Louis (Stan Shaw), also in the Army, threatens to stop turning over his appearance fees to the war effort.

Even as a lietenant who demonstrates strong who demonstrates strong leadership qualitiies, Robinson is a second-class soldier. And when he refuses to take a seat at the back of a camp bus at Fort Hood, Texas , he is brought up on court martial charges of insubordination. The case takes up the latter half of the film.

Viewers should know most of the derogatory racial slurs of the time are heard with some frequency in "Court Martial," and they are jarring. But there are some balancing touches.

Several white officers and Robinson's attorney come off sympathetically, Robinson shows some sexist intolerance himself when his girlfriend becomes a cadet, and he also must deal with other black officers who see his challenge to the system as a threat to them.

Bruce Dern does a sharp turn as Ed higgins, the outrageously bigoted Dodgers'scout who nonetheless taps Robinson for the bigs, and J.A. Preston is also good as black sportswriter Wendell Smith, who champions Robinson's case.

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